New Faculty Profile: Lauren Edelman

Labor's Response to Civil Rights Law


by Fernando Quintero

At a time when affirmative action policies are being rolled back and reviewed-including a recent federal appeals court decision to uphold California's controversial Proposition 209, the first state law to ban 30 years of U.S. affirmative action programs-new professor of law Lauren Edelman has been hard at work studying labor's response to civil rights laws.

While some of her findings are critical of occupational legal mandates including affirmative action programs, she says that more often than not, such policies don't do enough to ensure diversity in the workplace.

"Equal employment opportunity law is ambiguous, emphasizes procedure over substance, and has weak enforcement mechanisms," Edelman concluded in a recent study, "Legal Ambiguity and Symbolic Structures: Organizational Mediation of Civil Rights Law."

"Organizations have considerable latitude in how they respond to that law," she said.

Edelman said that in response to civil rights mandates, employers often create symbolic structures such as affirmative action offices and discrimination grievance procedures that "have little impact."

In 1989, Edelman conducted a survey of 350 organizations and prepared case studies involving interviews with lawyers, personnel professionals, affirmative action officers and other administrators as well as analysis of organizational documents.

Based on her survey, Edelman has written a number of papers, some with her former graduate students, that examine the impact of civil rights laws on work organizations.

"The now prevalent notion that affirmative action programs do too much to ensure diversity in the workplace is erroneous," Edelman said. "In many cases, they don't do enough."

In fact, her data suggests that affirmative action plans have no direct effect on the representation of minorities and may even harm women, a finding she says is due to the symbolic nature of these plans.

However, Edelman added that even weak civil rights laws have led to some progress due to "the emergent institutionalization of ideals underlying the law" which is often the result of affirmative action personnel within organizations who are highly committed to civil rights goals.

"Thus, in some cases, the creation of symbolic plans have led to special recruitment or training programs, which result in increases in minority and female representation," she said.

Prior to her arrival at Berkeley, Edelman, a native of Wisconsin who completed her JD at Boalt Hall, was an associate professor of sociology and law at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Edelman's research interest grew out of her senior thesis, which examined the role of law in perpetuating social stratification. "Throughout graduate school, I became more interested in law, although I knew I didn't want to be a lawyer."

At Berkeley, where Edelman has also been recruited by the Institute of Industrial Relations-an affiliation that began at Madison-she will continue her look at the legal environments of work organizations, with a focus on civil rights law, occupational safety and health law, and disabilities law.

"Professor Edelman adds much-needed strength in the area of sociology of law to the JSP program. We are fortunate to have been able to attract her to Berkeley from Wisconsin," said law school Dean Herma Hill Kay.

Edelman's current research on the legal environments of work organizations has received support from the National Science Foundation. Past honors include the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the American Sociological Association and an Excellence in Teaching Award from Madison.

In her research, Edelman, 41, has spent a considerable amount of time looking at the culture of work organizations. "It is the underlying culture of an organization that affects employees beliefs and willingness to assert their rights," Edelman said.

"The vast majority of employers have some form of mechanism like a grievance procedure, but the culture of an organization affects whether these procedures are fair and whether employees use them."

"I look at the dynamic interaction between an employer's response to civil rights law, and the employee's understanding of legal rights, and the mobilization of those rights."

Edelman and her colleagues have found that employer resistance to equal employment laws has decreased over time, and note a trend among employers toward seeing such laws as consistent with business interests.

However, Edelman added, recent attention to diversity has diluted rather than strengthened some of the impact of civil rights law.

"Diversity means a variety of things to a variety of employers, not just race and gender," Edelman said.

For some employers, "diversity" may include everything from flexible schedule arrangements to dress styles to lifestyles and even geographic differences.

As for the difference in Edelman's own geographic location, she described the change from Madison to Berkeley as "thrilling."

"Aside from Berkeley being a beautiful place, what is unique about the university is its interdisciplinary orientation," said Edelman. "In the law school, you have people who are experts in jurisprudence as well as economists, historians, political scientists and philosophers."

With her remaining time, Edelman enjoys playing the fiddle for Celtic folk dance gatherings and the gudulka, a Bulgarian folk fiddle.



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