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Standing against bias

By Stacy A. TeicherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 27, 2003

Guess the era:

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• A previously coed troupe that entertains fans at sporting events runs job ads seeking "males with athletic ability and talent."

• A female employee at a home-improvement store is assigned to a cash register, despite previous experience in a lumberyard that would qualify her for a sales-floor job (the springboard for promotions).

• A woman asks her boss why men in similar jobs earn more money. His reply: They have families to support.

If you said the 1960s or '70s, try again. All three incidents took place in the past 10 years. The first two resulted in payments to the affected women and agreements by the companies to try to eliminate discriminatory practices. The third stems from a lawsuit against Wal-Mart now working its way through the courts.

More than 100 women have submitted statements to the US District Court in San Francisco, charging discrimination in the form of unequal pay and barriers to promotion. If their request to classify this as a class-action suit is granted, the class would include 1.6 million women who have worked at Wal-Mart since 1998.

That would make it the largest employment class-action suit in United States history - one that would have "seismic impact," says Adam Forman, an attorney with Testa, Hurwitz, & Thibeault in Boston, which is not involved in the case.

The potential for a full battle in court ora gargantuan settlement has lawyers and employers alike watching from the edges of their seats. And the case could bring sex discrimination to the public's attention in a way not seen since Anita Hill's accusations against Clarence Thomas in 1991 forced a national conversation on sexual harassment.

However the case is resolved, it raises the specter of gender stereotypes that many assume had disappeared long ago.

"We don't hear very much anymore of people willing to say women should be home with their children, or a man should make more because he's supporting [a family] ... but the notion of women not being interested [in certain jobs] is still quite pervasive," says Joyce K. Fletcher, a professor at Boston's Simmons School of Management and its Center for Gender in Organizations.

Those more subtle stereotypes "are so embedded in the culture that it just seems like common sense, it doesn't seem like bias," she says.

No one denies women's overall advancement in the past few decades. In 1966, women constituted 31 percent of employees but only 9.3 percent of officials and managers at companies with more than 100 workers, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). By 2002, women accounted for 48 percent of employees and 36.4 percent of officials and managers.

But sex discrimination remains the second most common type of complaint to the EEOC (after race) - with about 25,000 filed each year, the vast majority from women.

One reason sex discrimination persists is that class-action lawsuits often end in monetary settlements, without much monitoring of the improvements a company is supposed to make afterward, says Michael Selmi, a law professor at George Washington University and author of a recent Texas Law Review article on key discrimination suits.

But firms can make significant changes if their leaders see value in eliminating exclusionary practices that are bad for business, he says. "There have to be rewards for diversifying the workforce, for having more women in management.... There has to be a commitment that it's the right thing to do."

'Fair shake' sought