Just to show you how important it is to have women in leadership positions, including the U.S. Supreme Court, the court appears to be divided among gender lines in the Dukes v. Wal-Mart sex discrimination case. From the Los Angeles Times:
“Led by Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Antonin Scalia, the majority of men on the court questioned how Wal-Mart could be held liable for illegal sex bias when its 3,400 store managers across the nation decide who gets promoted and who receives pay raises.
“‘It’s not clear to me: What’s the unlawful policy that Wal-Mart has adopted?’ Kennedy asked. The company’s written policy calls for equal treatment without regard to race or sex.
“But Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — who together mark the first time the court has had three women on the bench — asserted that a corporate policy of letting store managers decide on promotions could result in discrimination against women.
“The statistics generated in the case so far strongly suggested that was what had occurred, they said.”
The case won’t be decided until June. But until then, I hope our male justices will look to their daughters, their wives, their colleagues and the women in their lives and hear what their experiences have been. As of 2008, as many as 40% of women were the primary breadwinners in their households, a fact often touted by opponents of fair pay as a sign that women have achieved economic equality and therefore lawsuits like Dukes v. Wal-Mart and proposed laws like the Paycheck Fairness Act are unnecessary (1).
But the truth is these families are probably living on a lot less than if the wage gap were non-existent. Study after study has shown that mothers, in particular, make significantly less than the “75 cents to the dollar” statistic often bandied about in the media. Mothers are also dinged on numerous fronts from being offered a salary comparable to male peers doing the same work, or being bypassed for a promotion due to maternal status.
In a 2007 study, Stanford University Professor Shelley Correll and her colleagues sent out more than 1,200 fictitious resumes to employers in a large Northeastern city, and found that female applicants with children were “significantly less likely to get hired” and suffer a “substantial wage penalty.” Not only were fathers not penalized in the same fashion, but they even benefited from their parental status because they were seen as more dependable and responsible than a man without children. However, the same was not true of the mothers, who evaluators deemed less competent and less committed to their jobs – even if their experience and qualifications were identical to that of their male peers. (2)
Women can lie about their parental status or attempt to negotiate for higher salaries on their own, but sadly, studies have shown that both often backfire. Discrimination today is subtle. It’s not about potential employers putting up a sign on the door stating that women and minorities need not apply. It’s the underlying perceptions that often guide the hiring decisions of even the most competent employers.
Here are just a few of the ways, in which female job applicants may inadvertently be discriminated against: discrimination today is the underlying assumption that women have spouses who can support them, therefore they don’t need to earn the same pay or benefits as a man. It’s the underlying assumption that she will be less committed to her job, or is somehow unable to balance her job and childcare duties like a man. Discrimination is the underlying assumption that a woman who is too aggressive in negotiating a salary is somehow too difficult to work with – a bias, by the way, that is real and has been studied.
In all fairness, you can’t blame the employers or depend on only them to make change. We all have underlying impressions that guide our decisions from who our friends are to where we attend church. It is human nature to hire and befriend people who look like us.
Because 86 percent of Wal-Mart’s managers are male — that stat alone astounds me, by the way — you can see how a woman, and especially a woman with children, would find it difficult to break the glass ceiling to those higher-paying and more desirable jobs. Without action from the legislature and/or the U.S. Supreme Court, it will take another 45 years to erase the wage gap, something that should be disturbing to us all.
A victory in the Supreme Court – allowing the brave women of Wal-Mart to proceed as a class action lawsuit – will have an enormous impact on women and families, and send the message to corporate America that discrimination against women in pay and promotions will not stand. A defeat won’t mean the case is over, but it will be harder to fight discrimination on a case-by-case basis. Simply put, a lot is riding on this case.
Until then, we can only hope that the men on the U.S. Supreme Court do a lot of soul-searching. Also, we owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the brave women of Wal-Mart for all the sacrifices they’ve already made in their pursuit of justice for all, including the men and children in their care.