UMass professor to lead study on gender identity and sexual orientation discrimination among federal contractors

Published: 1/19/2017 4:17:02 PM

AMHERST — An economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst has been selected by the federal government to lead a first-of-its-kind study examining how federal contractors fare on gender identity and sexual orientation discrimination.

Lee Badgett, director of the School of Public Policy at UMass, said a $250,000 grant awarded to the university this week by the U.S. Department of Labor will help her and other researchers study the issue. 

UMass is one of eight schools to be awarded funds this week, totaling almost $2 million and administered through the Department of Labor’s Chief Evaluation Office.

Awardees will analyze how the department’s policies impact the public, Chief Evaluation Officer Molly Irwin, of the Department of Labor, said in a news release.

“These grants further our goals of supporting rigorous, independent research to understand the effectiveness of our programs and activities,” she said.

In 2014, President Obama issued an executive order banning federal contractors from discriminating based on gender identity or sexual orientation. The grants awarded this week aim to gauge how well contractors are compling with the order. 

“Nobody’s ever studied that — what kind of problems there might be amongst federal contractors, if any, and whether this executive order is helping to end discrimination,” Badgett said.

“There are lots of studies that have looked at this more generally in the U.S. labor force,” she added, citing, for example, a 2013 Pew Research Center survey stating that 21 percent of 1,197 LGBT respondents said they had been treated unfairly in the workplace.

Since 2013, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has accepted complaints from LGBT people in the workforce.

“Once they opened that door, thousands of people have filed complaints against their employers related to sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination,” Badgett said. “The data that we have is pretty amazing.”

Badgett will help lead the deep dive into department data along with Steve Boutcher, a UMass sociology assistant professor, and Amanda Baumle, another sociologist at the University of Houston, Badgett said. The team will use part of the money to hire students to help them mine the data trove.

Badgett said research will start this spring. In the near term, likely before the end of the year, the research team will be able to publish more quantifiable findings on discrimination in the workplace.

Some of the questions they’ll try to answer: In which states are most of the filings coming from? Who is filing — men, women, transgender people? What is their race? Do states with nondiscrimination laws have fewer complaints?

Badgett said longer term the team will analyze what industries the complaints are coming from. Researchers will also analyze the text of the complaints to try to see if there are any trends.

She added, “There will be a very laborious process of matching each of those charges to information about that employer that’s in an entirely different data set at the EEOC. That’s where we’ll find out if they are contractors or not.”

Two other Massachusetts universities received grant money: Harvard University received $188,000 to study the real effects of electronic wage payments, and Tufts University received $111,000 to analyze the effect of performance pay on U.S. workers’ physical and emotional health.

Joseph Versen, a Labor Department spokesman, said the grants were awarded Wednesday but that they might arrive at a later date because of additional required steps. He would not comment on whether incoming Trump administration officials could eliminate any funds, saying that “would involve too much speculation.”

Contact Jack Suntrup at



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