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Meet the Woman Who Makes Sure Employers Behave

We met up with EEOC Commissioner Charlotte Burrows and here's what we learned

 

Making sure employers adhere to workers' rights laws is a tough job, but someone's gotta do it. And Charlotte Burrows has been dedicated to the task since 2015, when she was appointed to the EEOC by President Obama. She's well qualified, too, as a seasoned employee of the federal government. Before she became the leader of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, she served as Assistant Deputy Attorney General at the Department of Justice, where she fought against discrimination in both civil and criminal arenas, and helped implement the Violence Against Women Act. When she served as General Counsel for Civil and Constitutional Rights to Senator Edward M. Kennedy, she contributed to both the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 and the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008.

Commissioner Burrow's lofty resume very clearly illustrates her dedication to protecting American civil liberties, especially those of its workers. At InHerSight , we too have a passion for looking out for employees — that's why we provide an anonymous platform for women to share their workplace experiences.

We recently got the opportunity to get up with the Commissioner to ask her a few questions about her work.

InHerSight:
Tell us a little bit about what you do as Commissioner.

Commissioner Burrows:
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, is the bipartisan agency charged with enforcing federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination based on sex (including pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation); race; color; national origin; religion; age; disability; and genetic information. These laws also prohibit workplace harassment and retaliation against those who report or oppose discrimination.

During my term, I have focused in particular on advancing the ball on pay equity for women, people of color, and vulnerable immigrant workers; combating harassment; increasing diversity in the technology industry and in government; as well as strategizing internally to find ways to continue to best serve the public.

Concretely, I conduct outreach, develop policy initiatives, and vote to issue regulations and to file court cases on behalf of working men and women who have been denied equal opportunity.

InHerSight:
What strides do you hope to see made in the near future against workplace discrimination?

Commissioner Burrows:
My hope is that the new public awareness of sexual harassment will prompt employers to improve how they address harassment and discrimination on all bases, including race, color, national origin, religion, age, and disability, as well as sex. For example, employers’ anti-harassment training should focus less on legal rules and more on creating respectful workplaces and giving employees practical, concrete information about what to do if harassment occurs.

I’d also like to see changes at the national level to advance pay equity. We recently celebrated the 55th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act, but there is still a significant gender pay gap between men and women who work full-time. The gaps are worse for women of color, and EEOC’s work also has uncovered problems with men of color being underpaid because of their race or ethnicity. Although it is unlikely to happen this year, Congress should pass the Paycheck Fairness Act to strengthen the original Equal Pay Act of 1963. In the meantime, businesses can lead by examining their own pay structures to ensure fairness, fixing any unjustified pay gaps, and basing starting salary on the employees’ qualifications, rather than their prior salary.

InHerSight:
What do you see as the biggest threats to American workers today?

Commissioner Burrows:
I am deeply concerned about efforts that undermine workers’ ability to join together to address their interests as a group, either through unions or otherwise.  When employees act collectively, they can negotiate with employers on a more equal basis. As just one example, research shows that the gender wage gap is lower for workers in a union than for non-union members ( source ). Recently, court decisions and other changes have made it harder for workers to join together to enforce protections in court or form a union.

InHerSight:
A few weeks ago, the Supreme Court voted in Epic System Corps v. Lewis to allow businesses to include forced arbitration agreements in employee contracts, thus preventing employees from organizing class-action lawsuits. How do you think these agreements affect employees?

Commissioner Burrows:
The decision is a real blow to workers. Essentially, the Court ruled to bar employees from joining together to address workplace violations in court if their employment contracts require individual arbitration. The ruling could deny a day in court for people to raise a variety of important claims — from sexual harassment to overtime violations. Studies have shown that employees are far more likely to win relief in court than through arbitration. Although there may be some situations where both employer and employee prefer arbitration, arbitration should be a choice, not a condition of employment.

InHerSight:
At InHerSight, we provide a platform and metrics for women to anonymously rate their employers. In your experience, how and when does feedback lead to positive change in an employer?

Commissioner Burrows:
In general, feedback from employees can be an incredible way for an employer to make lasting, positive change, provided the employer is open-minded and the feedback is fair and constructive. Many employers pay attention to ratings by employees, because scoring well can help them attract and retain top talent. Employers value specific input that includes practical suggestions and explains why change is needed. Likewise, surveys about workplace climate and employee satisfaction can also lead to improvements – such as helping employers identify and address workplace harassment. Finally, employers typically will pay more attention to concerns shared by many employees than those raised by only a few.

InHerSight:
Have you experienced significant mentorship in your professional or personal life? How did it affect you in your career?

Commissioner Burrows:
I have been fortunate to have many peer mentors during my career. While having mentors who are more senior can be invaluable, I have learned a great deal from peers and those who were only slightly further in their careers, but who had different experiences and were willing to share what they had learned. These relationships helped shorten my learning curve in many situations, and I will always be grateful.

InHerSight:
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career? What advice do you have for other women looking to have meaningful careers in the federal government?

Commissioner Burrows:
If I had to identify just one lesson as being most important, it would be this: persistence is critical. The most far-reaching and valuable changes don’t happen overnight. But if you persist and look for allies, it’s amazing what doors you can open.

Government service offers tremendous opportunities to create change. If you care about having a real impact on people’s everyday lives, you should consider working for the federal government or at the state and local level. My advice is to seek out roles in which your own goals align with the agency’s. When this happens, your work can be incredibly rewarding both for you and for the public.

Commissioner Burrows will be speaking at Ellevate Network's Mobilizing the Power of Women Summit in New York City and streamed online on June 21st .

By Mitra Norowzi

Equal Opportunities Sexual Harassment Women in Leadership Diversity
 

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June 18, 2018 by Mitra Norowzi