Meet Your Council: Elizabeth Hirsh

cropped-HirshElizabeth Hirsh is currently serving on the OOW Section Council.  Hirsh is Associate Professor of Sociology, Canada Research Chair in Inequality and Law, and Director of Graduate Studies in Sociology at the University of British Columbia.  Before joining the faculty at the University of British Columbia, she completed her PhD in Sociology at the University of Washington in 2006 and taught at Cornell University for four years.

Hirsh’s research expertise is in the areas of organizations, inequality, and the law.  Much of her work focuses on employment discrimination and the impact of antidiscrimination laws and corporate diversity policies on gender, race, and ethnic inequality in the workplace.  Hirsh’s work has appeared in top journals in sociology and law, including the American Sociological Review, the American Journal of Sociology, and the Law and Society Review. Hirsh teaches courses on work organizations, law, and social statistics.

Current projects include: a study of the economic, political, and organizational conditions under which employment discrimination lawsuits filed under U.S. civil rights laws bring about change in sex and race inequality in the workplace; a qualitative account of the factors that lead workers to file employment discrimination lawsuits based on interviews with plaintiffs in recent high-profile lawsuits; and an analysis of the impact of corporate diversity policies on levels of workplace sex and race inequality and discrimination disputes at work.

Below, Hirsh discusses her multidimensional research interests, the benefits and challenges offered by EEOC data and her upcoming research plans.

How did you become interested in studying employment discrimination?

The field of employment discrimination was an immediate draw for me because it allows for the study of both how inequality is produced and how it can be remedied in social settings.  The production question is complex, as it forces us to consider multiple causal factors, from organizational structure to culture to power and relationships.  The issue of remediation engages classic questions in law and society regarding access to justice and the impact of the law on equality and individual rights.  I’ve long been interested in questions of if and how the law can be equity-enhancing, and the study of employment discrimination provides a context to empirically examine this.  That – and as I bright-eyed new PhD student, my advisor sent me to the law library to dig up details on old discrimination lawsuits.  After getting lost in the stacks for a couple of hours, I was hooked.

You are very active in multiple subfields: organizational sociology, inequality, and law and society. How do you manage your scholarly identity across the boundaries? How do you remain active in different subfields?

Early in my career, I saw myself more as an inequality scholar who focuses on organizational inequities and laws designed to remedy them.  Now I see myself much more as an organizational sociologist who studies inequality and the law.  I’m sure my identity will continue to evolve.  I try to ask and answer questions that are at the nexus of these fields, as these are the questions that most interest me.  How do the empirical findings out of the organizational inequality tradition help us understand the reach and limits of the law?  What can insights from law and society say to those who study workplace inequality?  There is so much overlap in these fields that boundary crossing is easy.  Teaching in each area also keeps me active and (mostly) current in my subfields.

You have used establishment data from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). What are some advantages and disadvantages (or challenges) of using EEOC data?

The establishment-level data from the EEOC are ideal for studying workplace compositional change over time as they are collected annually and go way back.  But the real promise of the data is in matching them to additional sources.  For instance, together with collaborators, I have matched the establishment level data to EEOC charge data, to litigation data, and to workplace survey data to explore how legal claims and diversity practices affect workplace composition.  When you start matching to additional data sources, the possibilities are endless.

Getting to know these data also opens up opportunities to contribute to policy discussions and practice, since the EEOC data sources are first and foremost a tool for legal compliance.  But therein lies the challenge: they aren’t collected for academic purposes, so you must be prepared for some data drudgery.

What are your research plans for the next 5-10 years?

To finish the many projects I’ve been working on for the last 5-10 years!  I also toy with the idea of bringing my work on discrimination claims and organizational change together in a book, mostly to show my nonacademic friends that we scholars actually do something.  But as an article writer, I’m not sure I have the stamina!

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