Monday 4 April 2011

Bias and Sexism in the Workplace

When examining gender bias, it is important to define and understand the term. Gender is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as "classification of sex." According to this same source, bias is defined as "preference or inclination that inhibits impartiality and/or prejudice" Thus gender bias is separation of gender in a way which prefers one sex over the other.

Sexism, racism and ageism are all fundamentally the same in that they are all types of discrimination that is unjust and harmful to those who suffer the consequences of employer’s small-minded attitudes.

Will gender bias and sexism in the workplace ever go away? Can they ever go away? Is it possible to create a completely neutral workplace for men and women working together in the same workplace? The answer currently is no.

I'm not just talking about equal rights and equal pay for women doing the same jobs as men. In some cases, women do get equal pay for doing the same job as a man and do have equal rights. The government has all kinds of rules about that. And it is obeyed as far as many companies themselves are concerned. However, it’s the little subtle differences in the way women are treated that concerns women, and rightly so.
The attitudes of some men working with women sucks. In some cases, they can be condescending and treat the women quite well, and yet still give off the sense of "she shouldn't be here".

Many women are told in job interviews that women could never get top positions or even the middle positions. They were given lower positions —sorting mail, collecting newspaper clippings, delivering coffee. Clad in short skirts and dark-rimmed glasses, they'd click around in heels, currying favor with the all-male management, smiling softly when the bosses called them "dollies." That's just the way the world worked then. Though each quietly believed she'd be the one to break through, ambition, in any real sense, wasn't something a woman could talk about out loud.

But by 1969, as the women's movement gathered force around them, the dollies got restless. They began meeting in secret, whispering in the ladies' room or huddling around a colleague's desk. To talk freely they'd head to the Women's Exchange, a 19th-century relic where they could chat discreetly on their lunch break. At first there were just three, then nine, then ultimately 46—women who would become the first group of media professionals to sue for employment discrimination based on gender under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Their employer was NEWSWEEK magazine.

Recently, a crucial moment in the fight for gender equality in the workplace occurred when the U.S. Supreme Court began hearing arguments in the biggest class-action lawsuit in history. In the suit, first filed 10 years ago, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is accused by as many as one million current and former women employees of systemic gender bias in hiring, pay and promotion.

In essence, the court is being asked to judge whether abundant evidence of gender bias throughout society trumps much harder to obtain evidence of specific incidents of alleged maltreatment at a given employer.

Decisions on employment practices are notoriously subjective. The continued gender discrimination in the workplace, whether at large law firms or at other large companies, usually turns on a manager’s gut feeling and not an employee’s tangible record of achievement.

Wal-Mart, in trying to stop this case in its tracks by falling back on the usual excuses in cases where corporate conduct is under scrutiny. It says it has never condoned discrimination, of course. And it insists that any acts of gender bias are isolated incidents by rogue local managers. Hog wash.

It appears that there is considerable evidence that that they are not telling it like it really is. Wal-Mart’s official; statement conflicts with the sworn depositions of more than 100 of Wal-Mart’s women employees. It also conflicts with that of the San Francisco trial court judge who ruled the Wal-Mart case could proceed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

That judge said his ruling derived from “largely uncontested, descriptive statistics which show that women working in Wal-Mart stores are paid less than men in every region, that pay disparities exist in most job categories, that the salary gap widens over time, that women take longer to enter into management positions, and that the higher one looks in the organization, the lower the percentage of women.”

There are 29 female leaders in 27 different countries or self-ruling territories currently.You might think just from their achievements along with those of astronaut and scientist Roberta Bondar, and the women CEOs at Kraft Foods Inc., PepsiCo Inc. and Guelph-based Linamar Corp., which Linda Hassenfratz has expanded into a thriving multinational in the teeth of the worst auto-making downturn since the Great Depression, that women per se are quite capable of taking on large responsibilities in the workplace.

But if Wal-Mart CEO Mike Duke, who pulled down $19.2 million (U.S.) in pay last year compared with the average female Wal-Mart employee’s $13,000 in 2001 when the class-action suit was first filed, needs more specific evidence, it exists in abundance.
Consider the world-renowned orchestras that were confronted some years ago with accusations of gender bias. When their hiring committees finally were persuaded to conduct “blind auditions,” there was a 50 per cent jump in women advancing from preliminary rounds of consideration. And the likelihood of the women candidates being hired increased considerably.

If the U.S. Supreme Court decides that Wal-Mart isn’t immune from the widespread gender bias in society, and find accordingly for the plaintiffs, they will make history in demolishing barriers to women’s advancement. But if they choose not to hear the case, or find against them, the justices will greatly weaken class actions as a device for achieving justice and in my respectful opinion, weaken the public’s perception of them being a just and honourable body.

A court dominated by Republican appointees appears poised to do just that, going by the hostile reaction of justices to arguments by the plaintiffs’ lawyers. Only the top court’s three women justices, all Democrat appointees, appeared receptive to them earlier this week.

Wal-Mart’s women employees account for 71 per cent of the firm’s global workforce. That includes Canada, where Wal-Mart is the nation’s biggest general merchandiser.
How productive might one expect those workers to be when their treatment as second-class employees grinds at them every working hour? Will they continue to be fair game for sexist remarks from their supervisors and the regular male employees?
And so, in addition to the navigational nightmare that Wal-Mart’s stadium-sized stores can be, the company further hobbles itself with a largely discontented workforce who are so worn down by abuse, they are not so friendly to the customers. These are not employees in a frame of mind to guide a customer with enthusiasm to the obscure location of goods their customers are looking for.

“Those employers that are not taking steps to craft pay and promotion criteria to encourage equity among the genders are failing themselves and their customers as well as more than half the workforce. The energy and potential of women workers is a terrible thing to waste.” says Forbes legal columnist Victoria Pynchon who wrote of the Wal-Mart case.

What he said is true, but Wal-Mart and other such biased firms keep doing it. A more effective remedy is for shopers to do business only with employers known to treat all their workers with dignity and respect. Unfortunately, that isn’t always possible since despite the gender abuses of Wal-Mart, they do have a large supply of goods that are hard to find elsewhere.

The justices of the Supreme Court said on December 06, 2010 they would review a federal appeals court decision that approved a single suit to cover the claims of women who worked at the retailer’s 4,400 Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club stores since 2001. The suit, which threatens Wal-Mart with billions of dollars in liability, would be the largest-ever U.S. employment class action.

The dispute, perhaps the biggest business case of the court’s nine-month term, may affect several pending suits. A suit on behalf of more than 700 women against Costco Wholesale Corp. is on hold until the Supreme Court resolves the Wal-Mart case.
The lower court ruling “would dramatically broaden the circumstances where classes can be certified in all types of cases against all types of companies,” said Wal-Mart’s lawyer, Theodore Boutrous.

Wal-Mart hasn’t set funds aside to pay any damages in the case, according to a regulatory filing released in September, and said it can’t estimate what the amount would be. The company, the world’s largest retailer and the largest U.S. private employer, had $15 billion (U.S.) in profit and more than $400 billion in sales over the past 12 months.

Nineteen companies, including Bank of America Corp. and Microsoft Corp., urged the justices to take up the Wal-Mart appeal. They said the lower court opinion makes it too easy for workers challenging employment practices to secure class-action status and then extract large settlements. I think these companies are afraid that the decision could force them to treat their female employees as equals andpay out large settlements if they don’t.

Wal-Mart was accused in the nine-year-old suit of paying women less than men for the same jobs and giving female workers fewer promotions. Six women are seeking to serve as class representatives.

The women say that at the time the suit was filed, Wal- Mart’s corporate policies gave local managers too much discretion over hiring and pay decisions. The result was a “tap on the shoulder” system that let managers steer opportunities toward their male colleagues, said Joseph Sellers, who represents the women.
“There’s a large body of social science research that shows, when left to their own devices, people tend to pick people like themselves,” Sellers said in an interview. Since most managers are men, it follows that the people they choose to promote are also men.

Wal-Mart says that any problems were isolated ones and that the claims of women around the country would be too varied to proceed fairly as part of a single case. The workers in the class come from 41 regions and 400 districts and carry 170 different job classifications, the company said in its appeal.

Wal-Mart says the case would be so unwieldy it would violate the procedural rules that govern civil cases in federal court and the Constitution. The company argues that it should have a chance to defend against the allegations on a case-by- case basis.

They would like that. That way they could whittle down the efforts of the individual complainants. They can’t do that in a class action suit.

A federal trial judge certified a class of as many as 1.5 million past and current employees, saying that “rough justice is better than the alternative of having no remedy at all for any class member.”

The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, on a 6-5 vote, upheld that ruling as to women who were working when the lawsuit was filed. The appeals court said the trial judge might be able to create an additional class for former employees.
Writing for the 9th Circuit majority, Judge Michael Daly Hawkins said that a class action was better than “clogging the federal courts” with individual suits. “Mere size does not render a case unmanageable,” Hawkins said.

The justices will probably rule by July. The case “likely will be the most important business case this term,” said Carter Phillips, a Washington lawyer who filed a brief backing Wal-Mart on behalf of DRI, a defense-attorney group.

“If the court were to affirm, it would be an enormous decision,” Phillips said. “If it reverses, then it might be huge or it might be relatively limited.”

When women are expected to “stay in the home,” they are unable to access the necessary educational resources to compete with men in the job market. If by chance they are able to secure a position, women may be less prepared educationally for the task, and thus draw lower wages.

That is unfair and that practice should stop.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As always, great article. The many different levels of discrimination beyond pay and hiring need to be known by all.