In Conversation with Lee Badgett


Equitable Growth in Conversation is a recurring series where we talk with economists and other academics to help us better understand whether and how economic inequality affects economic growth and stability. In this installment, Kate Bahn, the director of labor market policy and chief economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, speaks with Lee Badgett, an economics professor in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the director of its Center for Public Policy and Administration. She also is a senior scholar at the Williams Institute for Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at the University of California, Los Angeles. In a recent conversation, Bahn and Badgett discussed:

  • How sexual orientation and gender identity shape economic outcomes
  • The intersectionality of sexual orientation, gender, and race in labor markets
  • How inclusion leads to stronger and more equitable economic growth, and why LGBTQ+ people aren’t fully included yet
  • Lack of data on LGBTQ+ people in the workplace
  • Data on LGBTQ+ workers from Badgett’s research on filings at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
  • Leadership in the field of economics examining sexual orientation and sexual identity
  • How to use research to change the world

Kate Bahn: Thank you so much for joining us today, Lee, and for taking time in your busy schedule. I’m really excited we can feature you in our “In Conversation” series since your research and career trajectories are not only really important but also warrant more focus as an underresearched topic in equity in economics and in the economy.

Lee Badgett: I’m delighted to be here. Thanks for the invitation.

How sexual orientation and gender identity shape economic outcomes

Bahn: So, I want to start by discussing your research background. You are one of the leading economics researchers who examines how sexual orientation and gender identity shape economic outcomes. What are the guiding questions of your research agenda?

Badgett: I think of myself as studying economic inequality, so that’s where I start: economic inequality for LGBTQ+ people. So, in thinking about economic inequality, I’m especially interested in how much of that is related to the treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people in the labor market.

I’m trained as a labor economist, so I started off studying race and gender inequality and discrimination. And I’ve taken this perspective into the LGBTQ+ space. Does discrimination exist? What impact does it have? And what can we do more generally about race and gender inequality and the discrimination faced by LGBTQ+ people?

The next key questions for me are what do we do about it? Our standard go-to in terms of policies is a law that’s very clear that says that discrimination is illegal. I think that’s extremely important. We’ve made some progress on that in the U.S. labor market and some labor markets abroad. But I think all that is not enough. And that’s where I am right now in my work. What else could we do?

I also think some of this focus of mine is a return to the olden days of LGBT activism, which was really direct and was focused on places of employment. Employees came together, and they made demands of their employers. So, I think there’s more that can be done there. I think it’s partly about having better data so we can pinpoint questions better or pinpoint answers better to the sources of inequality.

But I think social science researchers, and economists in particular, have to go even beyond that. And so, I’ve been thinking, in particular, about our fellow feminist economists who study economic development and gender. I’ve been trying to learn from them about how we can be much more direct to create opportunities for people to get the skills and access they need to good jobs and then, where maybe there aren’t great jobs available, thinking about other kinds of opportunities through entrepreneurship, through co-ops, and through other ways of more directly providing other kinds of economic opportunities. Let’s improve people’s livelihoods in these other ways, too.

The intersectionality of sexual orientation, gender, and race in labor markets

Bahn: That’s great. Now, I’m going to ask you a specific follow-up. You just talked about how you got to this focus initially trained as a labor economist while looking at race and gender in the labor market. What sort of lessons did you take from that being your initial foray into looking at disparity? And what have you learned about looking at the intersection of all those factors?

Badgett: Well, what I learned in the first place was that intersectionality matters. Black women and White women, for example, face very different kinds of ways that gender works to shape their lives and livelihoods. I especially learned that one has to look far and wide to understand what’s really happening. A lot of people really love wage gap studies. And that’s important because they show how discrimination might actually influence what people have to live on. But there are lots of other ways that race and gender matter.

And now that we’re starting to see that sexual orientation matters, we can start mapping that out more fully. It matters in terms of what occupations people are in. It matters what their opportunities are to get jobs. It matters how they’re treated on the job—not just about how much they get paid but also do they get harassed? What forms does that harassment take? I think there are definitely some really clear things that I brought with me that I learned from studying discrimination and how these things are connected. It’s not just about intersectionality in theory, but also about how these intersectionalities work in different contexts and shape many economic outcomes. And it’s also about how the components of how LGBTQ+ people are treated really are rooted in gender, in patriarchy, basically. And, of course, racism will also play a role for LGBTQ+ people of color.

And I think this research perspective tells us a lot about why it’s so hard to shake these things off. It’s why it is so hard to get beyond these intersectionalities because they’re all really connected. Everybody gets caught in those webs. When I’m teaching my students about sexual orientation and gender identity, for example, I have to talk about gender because intersectionality matters. And I have to talk about race, too, because all of these things matter in understanding LGBTQ+ people and where they are in our labor market and our society.

Bahn: Exactly. One thing that I’ve taken from feminist economics is that gender discrimination is so persistent across all economies. It’s just remarkable how patriarchy shapes outcomes in Bangladesh and patriarchy shapes outcomes in the United States because it’s just such a fundamental structure.

Badgett: And it might not look exactly the same in Bangladesh and in the United States.

How inclusion leads to stronger and more equitable economic growth, and why LGBTQ+ people aren’t fully included yet

Bahn: Exactly. So, can you talk about a little bit about the sorts of multifaceted inputs to disparity faced by LGBTQ+ individuals? In your recent book, The Economic Case for LGBT Equality: Why Fair and Equal Treatment Benefits Us All, you argue that inclusion will help the broader economy. So, what are the outcomes for the broader economy? And what are the underlying mechanisms that lead from inclusion to growth?

Badgett: Mostly, I look at this from the perspective of a labor economist and think about what happens to people’s human capital when they’re subjected to stigma, to discrimination, and to violence. These actions have very severe, sometimes very clear, individual effects. But the other thing about economics is that we know individuals add up to a big economy, and sometimes, effects at the individual level get magnified at the macro level.

So, I try to show that everybody has something at stake in this conversation because we all depend on each other. Our health matters to each other because, as the pandemic showed us, we are in an increasingly global society, and we can easily pass things along to each other. Well, in the same kind of way, in the economy, when somebody’s sick or somebody’s not operating at their full capacity, that has an effect on everybody they work with, and it has an effect on that business overall.

So, for LGBTQ+ people, we know that stigma makes people sick, very literally. The idea of minority stress captures the extra things that LGBTQ+ people have to think about all the time. They think, “can somebody tell that I’m LGBT? Should I mention my significant other, which will out me, or should I play it safe even given how I look?”

Psychologists call this hyper vigilance. This constant hyper vigilance, always needing to calculate how things look, takes up a lot of cognitive energy that saps people’s ability to cope with things that come their way. And so, we see more mental health conditions for LGBTQ+ people or higher rates of prevalence of conditions, such as anxiety and depression and substance use and HIV and suicidality. All these things can have devastating effects on people’s lives and ability to contribute, and they are taking all of that into the workplace.

When LGBTQ+ people have problems in school, get bullied or harassed by their teachers, or are treated badly in many different possible ways, that affects the quality and the quantity of their education. They are more likely to drop out, they have lower grade point averages, they’re less likely to continue on to college, and there are lots of other kinds of effects. So, that means that people are not getting all the skills and knowledge and enhancements of their creativity that they could and would then contribute to our economy.

And then, once LGBTQ+ people enter the workplace, they enter that same cycle of having to decide how out they can be. Even now in the United States, which, I think, people like to believe is a fairly welcoming place for LGBTQ+ people these days, I get asked this a lot, whether things are all better, and they’re not because there is still this fear of discrimination and harassment and of being fired. And those fears are based in reality. We still have lots of evidence, and there’s still a lot of fear and concern.

Only about half of LGBTQ+ people are out in the workplace, where they’re open to everybody, their bosses or colleagues, according to several different surveys that I’ve seen relatively recently. That’s not good in terms of working with other people because we have a lot of workplaces and work processes nowadays that require you to be engaged with other people working in teams. If you’re not able to really be who you are, then you’re not able to perform at your best.

Whatever skills and knowledge and creativity LGBTQ+ people bring to the workplace, their employers are not going to be able to fully take advantage of them. So, all of these human capital components, just by themselves, are things that show the link between being exclusionary when it comes to LGBTQ+ people and harm to the economy and to lots of employers.

Bahn: That makes sense to me. And these harms are evident in lots of different ways across the economy.

Badgett: That’s right. This is why I’m trying to get people in development banks, ministries of finance, the Federal Reserve, the IMF, and other such agencies that care about how well-functioning economies are to consider directly how those agencies also are in the business of making economies more inclusive.

Lack of data on LGBTQ+ people in the workplace

Bahn: You noted earlier that there’s a general lack of data that allow for economics research on LGBTQ+ individuals, but there have been recent advances. These identifiers, for example, were included recently in the U.S. Census Bureau’s Pulse Survey. Can you describe what principles need to be included when gathering data that account for sexual orientation and gender identity? How should these questions be constructed to make sure the data being collected are useful for actually capturing someone’s experience and using it for research?

Badgett: It’s a great question. It’s a lot harder than it looks. If you were to put a bunch of LGBTQ+ people in a room, it would look different in every country, but I suspect they would share very similar kinds of experiences. I think we would sit down and talk about our experiences and what these terms mean to us and come up with ways of asking questions about sexual orientation, about gender identity, and maybe the response categories that we think would be appropriate to use.

The problem is that if these ways of asking questions also are put in front people who are cisgender, or people who are heterosexual, then those terms are often things that they don’t know or understand. Take the word cisgender. I always explain it when I use it because it’s a term that’s still relatively new—not so much in the LGBTQ+ community, but we can’t take for granted that other people know what it means. Or consider the prefix trans in transgender. It gives a sense of people who are moving from one position of how their gender identity is viewed to another. But for cisgender people, this is something they are just not very familiar with since they may not have the recognition that their gender identity aligns with the biological sex they were assigned at birth.

So, I think academics and policymakers alike need to come to some kind of understanding that surveys have to speak to everybody so that everybody is able to understand them. This means LGBTQ+ people may not be able to have our first, best, most preferred way of thinking about ourselves individually being reflected back to us. But it would be a big improvement if there’s at least something that looks pretty darn close. I’ve been doing this research now for almost 30 years, and we’ve come a very long way in terms of the methods that we use to try to figure out how to ask these questions—and, more importantly, in convincing people to put them in their surveys.

In the way I’ve come to think about it, there are at least kind of three things that have to line up to get these survey questions right. First, there have to be enough LGBTQ+ people who care about the questions and understand the importance of data. Then, there needs to be some kind of scientific consensus, so that those of us who do this sort of thing for living can be a little bit of a bridge with LGBTQ+ communities to say, “Well, it’s not exactly perfect, but here’s why: Nobody knows that other term when we try it out on other people.” Then, we researchers can talk about why it’s important to phrase the questions in a scientifically sound way. And finally, we’ve got to have the policy and political world in alignment.

When those three things come together, as they have periodically over the past 30 years, then we’ve seen amazing improvements in data on LGBTQ+ people—but we cannot take that for granted.

During the Trump administration, attempts were made to pull back questions off of surveys. Statistical inclusion is just like any other kind of inclusion. It’s not something to be taken for granted at this point. In the United States today, we have a political situation in which there’s a lot of openness to data, and there’s the Equitable Data Working Group at the White House that wants to make sure we have data inclusion for LGBTQ+ individuals. I’ve been talking to folks at the White House pretty much from the beginning of the [Biden] administration about this, and then suddenly, there were those kinds of questions in the recent Pulse Survey. So, that was a great victory.

Bahn: I really like your answer to this question because it’s not about the numbers necessarily, but also about the social communities that make data collection possible, both in terms of the activist side of getting people to care and in getting people to understand why things may be imperfect. This is something people probably don’t appreciate about data collection—that it’s not just about getting numbers to answer, but rather a much broader project.

Badgett: But the numbers are important. If we’re not counted, we don’t count. But it’s also very practical because we need to know how well LGBTIQ+ people in the United States are doing amid the COVID-19 pandemic, for example.

Data on LGBTQ+ workers from Badgett’s research on filings at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

Bahn: I also want to dig specifically into one of your research projects, partly because I saw you present it at an IAFFE conference several years ago. I’m referring to your research project using the data from filings with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Can you describe the process of getting these data and what you found with them?

Badgett: Openness at the EEOC to working with academics comes and goes. For a while, there was a great period of openness to get access to the data they collect on employers about the race and gender composition of their workforces via EEOC surveys. But to get access to the charge data about individual people who walking in the door filing charges against their employers was difficult. I basically had to become a federal government employee. This happens through the Intergovernmental Personnel Act process, which enables college and university personnel [among others] like me to be seconded to the EEOC from UMass Amherst. This process gave me an official way to access to their data.

Alas, access to these charge data has more or less come to a halt over the past few years. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was going through some administrative changes to upgrade their safety and privacy of their data systems, and also had some changes in personnel. We did produce some papers based on those charge data, but we still have more that we want to do that we’ve been basically prevented from doing.

The EEOC data are important data. The data show that affirmative action is a very important tool for fighting discrimination. Studies that have been done in the past using EEOC data document the types of discrimination that LGBTQ+ people experience. The agency itself was on the forefront of getting LGBTQ+ people covered by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination on the basis of sex and race and some other categories, by concluding that sex discrimination includes discrimination against people who are LGBTQ+ because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

And so, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in 2013, started allowing LGBTQ+ people to file charges against their employers anywhere in the country, not just in the states that have laws that specifically prohibited that kind of treatment. And then, in 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that position in its Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia decision. Today, it’s very clear that LGBTQ+ people are protected against sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination everywhere in the United States.

As part of our EEOC data research project, we asked them for data on charges filed by employees with the agency since 2013. We also matched up the charges data to data on companies’ workforce composition, industry, and contractor status, so that we could evaluate the effects of another policy in the Obama years. President [Barack] Obama in 2014 said that he was adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of characteristics that federal contractors were not allowed to use in employment decisions. That was a really big deal because a lot of companies are federal contractors and so that workforce is huge.

We wanted to see whether it mattered in terms of fighting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. What we found was that it did seem to matter for boosting the number of charges filed by employees, but it seemed to matter everywhere, not just in places that didn’t have protections for LGBTQ+ people before the 2020 Bostock decision by the Supreme Court.

This increase in charges everywhere might or might not have been connected to the 2014 executive order, but there was another thing that was definitely connected to that executive order. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission will investigate charges or try to mediate charges in order to resolve them for employees filing charges against their employers. And then, at the end of the charge, the agency at the end of the investigation will record whether the person who had filed it got anything out of it. Did the employee get a change in employment practices by the employer? Did the person get rehired? Was there a financial settlement?

We found that there appears to be less discrimination in the places that had not previously been covered by nondiscrimination policy. Federal contractors in those places were less likely to have charges that resulted in changes for employees filing charges, suggesting there was less discrimination. So, it looked like there was a good effect of the Obama executive order among federal contractors. And we also tried to expand that understanding by adding in some other questions about what it looks like when you create these new categories of discrimination. I was working with some sociologists on this project, and they were very interested in what they call legal consciousness, or how people think about the rights that they have. We’re still working on that, though very slowly now because of the data problems.

Bahn: That’s super interesting. Sometimes policy can be a leading force for the type of cultural change that people need to feel they can file claims. If you have the policy first, then sometimes the cultural change can follow. I’ve also seen research that finds when it becomes easier for individuals to file a charge claim, the probability of finding that the claim had merit decreases. This is a little bit counterintuitive because even though employees are less likely to have a finding in your favor, there is evidence that they are better able to file a claim, either because of their own comfort level or a decreased fear of retaliation by an employer for an employee filing a claim.

Badgett: Yes, that’s right. Does the law lead, or does it follow? In the marriage equality era, I was very involved in a lot of the court cases in which there had to be enough movement in judges’ attitudes to get the courts to budge and move in those directions. And since then, we’ve continued to see a pretty steady uptick in the approval of giving same-sex couples the right to marry. So, changes in the law continue to change the attitudes of people. I’ve had some colleagues who’ve done some careful studies of attitudinal change after a lot of the innovations in gay rights over the years, including in some other countries, who have found something fairly similar happening.

Bahn: Yes. I was thinking of [University of Exeter economist] Dario Sansone’s work on marriage equality and on U.S. labor market discrimination. There’s a cultural shift, then there’s a legal shift, and there’s a cultural shift.

Badgett: Yes, they reinforce each other. One of my colleagues at UMass Amherst, sociologist Don Tomaskovic-Devey, who studies the EEOC and discrimination, argues that social movements also need to be active to make those laws work. Activism makes sure that there’s still a fire lit under the government agencies that enforce them and helps make sure Congress is funding that hard work. All of those pieces are enhanced by having that activism at the same time.

Leadership in the field of economics examining sexual orientation and sexual identity

Bahn: I’m going to switch gears a little bit. I want to talk about your leadership in the field of economics and, particularly, how you’ve applied your research focus on the stress-related factors related to sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace to changing the profession of economics itself. You were one of the founding organizers of the American Economic Association Committee on the Status of LGBTQ+ Individuals in the Economics Profession. It’s a long title, but appropriate. How did this work get started? And what are the goals for the committee?

Badgett: The work had started even before this committee got started, way back in the 1990s. Some of us met to try to build some community within the economics profession. But it didn’t take for a variety of reasons. Fast forward to a few years ago. Some friends, some good allies on the AEA executive committee, approached some of us and said, “Hey, you know, we’re just thinking, how are things in the economics profession for LGBTQ+ people?” And we started a conversation that led to the support of the AEA for some informal gatherings.

For a few years, we would have 50 or 60 people show up for lunches and breakfasts at a crazy hour of the morning, showing how important it was for them to find other people, to share our experiences, and to build an intellectual community around LGBTQ+ issues as well. It then became clear there was a need, especially for younger economists. I think for those of us who’d fought our fights and won our battles, we had gotten to a certain place where things were relatively okay, but there were people behind us who needed that kind of support, too.

So, we ended up making a case to the AEA that we needed another Committee on the Status. There’s one for people who are in minority groups. There’s one for women. And the AEA said sure and have been supporting us with funding for events and all sorts of things. We made our big debut in January 2020 at the ASSA meetings in San Diego, but we haven’t met in person since then due to the pandemic. But we’re continuing to do work. We have a webinar series. We’ve got a mentoring program. We have newsletters that go out, and a listserv, and great swag, such as pens, tote bags, pronoun stickers for badges, and all that kind of stuff just to make ourselves more visible and to give allies opportunities to make those statements too.

We also now have two slots at the AEA annual meetings for panels. We use one for papers that are specifically related to LGBTQ+ issues. And we use the other to explore different themes each year. There will be people who are LGBTQ+ on these panels, but they’re not working on LGBTQ+ issues. They might be doing research in labor or health or development or history or some other field. We’re trying to build that community on the intellectual side and on the professional side to build up people’s professional development opportunities. So, those are a few of the things that we’re doing.

How to use research to change the world

Bahn: One last question. You’ve also written a book on scholars using their research for public engagement, called The Public Professor: How to Use Research to Change the World. I’m curious what you think about how the economics field is suited to generating research for policy analysis. And then, where do you see the greatest opportunities for moving that forward?

Badgett: Well, in a lot of ways, economics was made for public policy. Economists exist to address a lot of concerns about things that happen in the world that can be improved by public policy, whether it’s market failures on the micro side or all the big macro issues. I think economists do a better job at thinking about how to plug in to policymaking than a lot of the other social sciences do. But I think there’s a generic sort of plugging that is useful for public policy and then, there’s the step further, which is why the subtitle of my book is “How to Use Research to Change the World.”

If economists can identify big problems, such as inequality for LGBTQ+ people, which is the one I’ve worked on, or environmental issues or other inequality issues, such as the ongoing scourge of racism, then we can be more strategic and more effective and actually contribute to changing the world. Rather than just providing, say, President Biden with research and analysis to use when he makes a decision, economists also can help connect the dots with activists and decision-makers and end up at a point where there’s a policy that’s being changed that has taken a long time.

I wrote that book after I’d spent a decade or so working on the marriage equality issue. I came to realize that research played a big role. Partly, this was because the settings in which these decisions were being made had traditions of drawing on research, such as court decisions, and making use of expert witnesses in those different cases. And partly, this was because in the court of public opinion, there were op-ed pieces to be written, there were advocates of one kind or another who were running into different kinds of stereotypes, and there were arguments being thrown at us against marriage equality, and we needed to push back.

A lot of times, these were things that researchers could speak to. When confronted by those who were saying that having gay parents is bad for children, for example, psychologists could point to a whole bunch of research that shows LGBTQ+ people are great parents and certainly just as good as parents who aren’t LGBTQ+ people. And when opponents of marriage equality said letting gay people get married would be the end of civilization or would lead to the collapse of the institution of marriage, it was possible to find countries in Europe that had recognized same-sex marriage for a long time, and people still got married, civilizations hadn’t fallen apart, and people were still giving birth to children.

I felt there were ways of taking on some of these really thorny issues and that researchers had something very useful to offer. And getting people that I knew who worked in other areas was another one of my goals. At UMass Amherst, we have something called the Public Engagement Project that I and some other people built over the years, where we tried to change the culture at UMass to being one where it was not just maybe okay for people to do that kind of work, but was actually encouraged. And we gave people resources to do it. And it was supported by our entire administration. Now, when university officials need to be able to show a legislator that the investments of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and UMass Amherst are worthwhile, they can find lots of people who are doing really good things and who have learned how to talk about their work in a very accessible way.

Bahn: I heard two lessons just now that I think are really valuable about pushing back against arguments for social inclusion. The first is that economics can do a lot of pushing back, as can social science research more generally. And second, by drawing attention to major sources of inequality, we can push the envelope to actually have a new and different society. That kind of forward thinking is exciting, and it’s important.

Badgett: Yes, I agree. This past school year, for example, I taught a class called the equity lab where we did exactly that, looking at three big problems. One was the inclusion of women and people of color in high-paying jobs. So, we looked at construction trade jobs, pinpointed construction projects at UMass Amherst, and then looked at the race and gender composition of the workforce to advise the carpenters union and UMass building authority about how well their compliance efforts were going.

In the same way, we looked at economic empowerment for LGBTQ+ people. And we looked at reparations for slavery. We can all be part of the solutions to these problems, but some of it is going to be about thinking outside the box about very direct ways that we could attack the problems that exist in each of those areas.

Bahn: Thank you so much. Those are all my questions. We covered a lot of ground. I told you we would.

Badgett: You were right, you were right. Thank you.



The importance of anti-discrimination enforcement for a fair and equitable U.S. labor market and broadly shared economic growth

LaborInequality & Mobility
In Conversation

In Conversation with Cecilia Conrad

Inequality & MobilityLabor
TOPICS: Pay Equity

Stratification economics: What it is and how it advances our understanding of inequality

Inequality & Mobility

Unions and the enforcement of labor rights: How organized labor protects U.S. workers against unfair and illegal employment practices


Addressing the ‘double gap’ faced by Black women in the U.S. economy

LaborTax & MacroeconomicsInequality & Mobility
working paper

Returns in the labor market: A nuanced view of penalties at the intersection of race and gender

Inequality & MobilityLabor
Connect with us!

Explore the Equitable Growth network of experts around the country and get answers to today's most pressing questions!

Get in Touch