Laura Beth Nielsen

Laura Beth Nielsen

Rights on Trial: How Employment Discrimination Law Perpetuates Inequality

Professor & Chair, Northwestern University, Department of Sociology & American Bar Foundation

Rights on Trial is a landmark book about the relationship between employment civil rights litigation and inequality in the American workplace. The book argues that despite an apparently widely shared commitment to the ideal of a discrimination-free workplace and the rights of targets of discrimination to seek redress, employment civil rights litigation actually perpetuates workplace inequality rather than ameliorating it. The dispute process:

  • Imposes heavy personal costs on plaintiffs
  • Insulates the workplace from information about settlements
  • Provides no or limited awards to most plaintiffs, and
  • Reinforces stereotypes about protected categories of workers — a process the authors call ‘reinscription.’


Rights on Trial goes beyond an illustration of ‘why the haves come out ahead’ in this arena to demonstrate how the law contributes to workplace inequality by reinforcing managerial authority and workplace hierarchies of race, gender, age, and disability. Combining an original quantitative data set of a large random sample of federal case filings over the last four decades, the universe of EEOC complaints in that time, and more than one hundred qualitative in-depth interviews with plaintiffs, plaintiffs’ lawyers, defendants, and defense lawyers in a systematically selected subsample of cases, the book offers a comprehensive and critical assessment of the dynamics of employment civil rights litigation.


Laura Beth Nielsen is Professor & Chair of Sociology and Research Professor at the American Bar Foundation. She is a sociologist and lawyer with degrees from the University of California, Berkeley (Ph.D. 1999 and J.D. 1996). Professor Nielsen’s research interests are in law’s capacity for social change. Her primary field is the sociology of law, with particular interests in legal consciousness (how ordinary people understand the law) and the relationship between law and inequalities of race, gender, and class. Her most recent monograph, Rights on Trial: How Employment Discrimination Law Perpetuates Inequality (Chicago, 2017), examines the litigation system of employment civil rights in the United States. Her first monograph, License to Harass: Law, Hierarchy, and Offensive Public Speech (Princeton University Press, 2004), studies racist and sexist street speech, targets’ reactions and responses to it, and attitudes about using law to deal with such speech. She has participated in Congressional briefings about federal hate crime legislation and the role of speech in hate crime. She has co-edited three books about rights in general and employment civil rights in particular including Theoretical and Empirical Perspectives on Rights (Ashgate, 2007), Handbook of Employment Discrimination Research: Rights and Realities (with Robert L. Nelson, Springer, 2005) and New Civil Rights Research: A Constitutive Approach (with Ben Fleury-Steiner, Ashgate 2006). Coverage of her scholarship and her own commentary have appeared in The New York Times, Time Magazine, FOX News, Morning Edition (NPR), ABC Radio, Al-Jazeera English, the Huffington Post, USA Today, and the Nation. In addition, she is the author of numerous articles published in the UCLA Law Review, Law and Society Review, Law and Social Inquiry, Law and Policy, Stanford Journal of Law and Policy, and the Wisconsin Law Review. She is also the recipient of grants and awards from the National Science Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, and the MacArthur Foundation.