Unfortunately, our “post-racial” society isn’t post-bias

Unfortunately, our “post-racial” society isn’t post-bias

By Amy Semmel


According to a recent study by MTV, the majority of millennials believe that they live in a “post-racial” society.  They cite Barack Obama’s presidency as a great achievement for race relations.  Having a black President even influenced a majority of the study participants to believe that people of color have the same opportunities as white people.  Unfortunately, employment statistics say otherwise. Since 1972 –when the Federal Reserve began collecting separate unemployment data for African-Americans — the black unemployment rate has stubbornly remained at least 60% higher than the white unemployment rate. The gender pay gap has barely budged in a decade, with full-time women employees being paid 78% of what men were paid.  And the gap is worse for women of color, with Hispanic women laboring at the bottom, with only 54% of white men’s earnings. 70% of Google employees are male, with only 2% Black, 3% Latino, and 30% Asian. This from the company whose motto is “Do no Evil.” How can this be? While overt racism or sexism is rarer today in corporate America, implicit biases linger.

Source: Google Official Blog - googleblog.blogspot.com

Source: Google Official Blog – googleblog.blogspot.com

Imagine that you are supervisor, with two virtually identical resumes on your desk.  Both candidates are equally qualified.  Do you gravitate toward the one with a white Anglo-Saxon name (think “Emily” or “Brendan”), or a name more likely to belong to an African-American (think “Lakisha” or “Jamal”)? Aware of their bias or not, hiring managers are 50% more likely to call the applicant with the white-sounding name in for an interview.  There is a growing body of research like this that proves that implicit bias is real and is having real-life consequences for people who are considered “other” in terms of race, disability, sexual orientation and other characteristics. (There are even on-line tests you can take to find out about your own implicit biases.)  But even as our understanding of how implicit bias leads to discrimination grows, judges often fail to recognize that discrimination can result from unconscious stereotypes or subtle preferences for people similar to oneself—perhaps today even more than overt bigotry.  To truly provide equal opportunity for all, social science research into how people actually behave in the workplace must inform the enforcement of anti-discrimination laws.

Amy Semmel

About Amy Semmel

Ms. Semmel devotes her practice to eradicating discrimination and retaliation in the workplace. She advocates for employees seeking remedies for retaliation for whistleblowing, discrimination and wage theft. Ms. Semmel is frequently invited to speak at conferences and seminars throughout the state. Subjects on which she has spoken include discovery issues in employment litigation; liability of successor, electronic discovery, alter ego and joint employers; the Private Attorney General Act, and developments in wage and hour law.

More Episodes of Clueless in Silicon Valley:  What does the reaction say about us?

More Episodes of Clueless in Silicon Valley:  What does the reaction say about us?

By Supreeta Sampath

The spotlight shined again this month on employer cluelessness in Silicon Valley, first with Microsoft’s new CEO telling women they’re better off waiting for karma than pushing for raises and then with the news that one multi-million dollar tech company was paying workers in Rupees.

Early this month came the disturbing comment about women and pay raises by Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, speaking (ironically) at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Conference.  Nadella’s mind-boggling advice to young women seeking advice on how to ask for a raise was to keep quiet – “knowing and having faith that the system will give you the right raises as you go along.”  He further opined that it’s “good karma” not to ask for a raise.  Immediately after the talk, Nadella recanted in a tweet –

Nadella tweet

That same day he issued a letter of apology to Microsoft workers telling them if they think they deserve a raise, just ask.

Then last week, EFI, a publicly-traded digital technology company was caught by the U.S. Department of Labor paying eight employees in Rupees.  That’s right, Rupees, the currency of India.  Apparently, the Fremont-based multi-million-dollar company believed that because it had flown the Indian employees from India to California for a project, it was allowed to pay the employees in Rupees, at a rate equivalent to $1.21 per hour and make them work 120 hours per week.  The consequence for this travesty?  Other than paying $40,000 in wages owed, EFI was fined a mere $3,500 by the DOL. What was the company’s response?  Let’s just say there were no apologies, simply feigned ignorance of the law.

The reaction to these events reveals a ‘sign of the times’ and the power of media to focus (or not) on work place equality.

The public and media decry of Nadella’s comments are ubiquitous.  If one types in any combination of “Nadella”, “Pay” and “Women” into any search engine, the results are prolific. Ranging from tweets of dismay and disgust, to thoughtful editorial pieces criticizing Nadella in major news magazines, the country passionately leaped into its discussion about gender equality in the work place. Perhaps most notable is the equal abundance of pieces (including in the New York Times) spinning Nadella’s blunder into a positive and needed opportunity to continue discussions about the gender divide.

In stark contrast to the national reaction over the Nadella debacle, you will be hard pressed to find any significant media coverage over EFI’s unlawful conduct.  Media attention was short-lived and confined to local stations.  I found only one article condemning the behavior and guffawing at the paltry DOL fine.  So where are the bloggers, tweeters and national media commentators decrying wage theft and worker exploitation?  Why is there a lack of any meaningful response expressing shame and disgust over this blatant example of corporate greed? And has anyone asked whether EFI would have paid British workers in Pounds (with a $1.61 exchange rate) if they had been slogging away in California for the company?  Why is no one furious that a company reporting close to $200 million in revenue in its last financial quarter got away with a $3500 fine?

Perhaps with recent political victories like the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and Cheryl Sanberg exhorting women to “Lean In” – it is more socially acceptable and sexy to debate the merits of fair pay and gender equality in the work place than to focus on the unrelenting reality of labor exploitation.  Perhaps Microsoft is cleverer and has a better Communications Department assisting in rehabilitating Nadella and Microsoft’s reputation through widespread “positive spin” pieces?  Perhaps it is all of this.

Don’t get me wrong, as a woman and a workers’ rights advocate, I am thrilled that Nadella’s comments have put needed attention on pay and gender equality in the workplace.  But as a woman and worker’s rights advocate, it’s clear to me that the bigger lesson can be learned from the different ways these two employer “mishaps” have been reported by the media and digested by the masses.

Minimum wage, wage theft and worker exploitation may not be as alluring as gender equality in the year 2014, but they are equally vital to our national economy and collective moral conscience.

 

Supreeta Sampath

About Supreeta Sampath

Supreeta Sampath is the founder of The Sampath Law Firm located in San Francisco, California. For over a decade, her legal career has been dedicated to serving the needs of those who have been denied justice. Ms. Sampath has extensive experience representing workers in employment discrimination cases on account of race, national origin, religion, gender, disability, age, sexual harassment, retaliation as well as cases involving labor code violations. From 2011-2014 she has been named a Rising Star in the field of Labor and Employment by Super Lawyers Magazine.

Tinder on fire: How women in tech are still losing

Tinder on fire: How women in tech are still losing

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By Lisa Mak

A “whore,” “gold-digger,” “desperate loser,” and “just a bad girl.”  These are only a handful of the sexist comments that Whitney Wolfe, co-founder of the mobile dating app Tinder, alleges she was subjected to by chief marketing officer Justin Mateen.  Last month, Wolfe brought suit against Tinder for sex discrimination and harassment.  Wolfe’s legal complaint details how Mateen sent outrageously inappropriate text messages to her and threatened her job, and how Tinder CEO Sean Rad ignored her when she complained about Mateen’s abuse.  Wolfe claims that Mateen and Rad took away her co-founder designation because having a 24-year-old “girl” as a co-founder “makes the company look like a joke” and being a female co-founder was “slutty.”

The conduct, which Wolfe’s complaint characterizes as “the worst of the misogynist, alpha-male stereotype too often associated with technology startups,” unfortunately remains the norm, and Wolfe is not alone in her experience.  Last year, tech consultant Adria Richards was fired after she tweeted and blogged about offensive sexual jokes made by two men at a tech conference.  After one of the men was fired from his job, Richards experienced horrendous Internet backlash, including rape and death threats.  She was then fired by Sendgrid after an anonymous group hacked into the company’s system in some twisted attempt at vigilante “justice.”

In 2012, junior partner Ellen Pao filed a sexual harassment suit against a venture capital firm, alleging retaliation after refusing another partner’s sexual advances.  And back in 2010, Anita Sarkeesian was the target of online harassment after she launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a video series to explore female stereotypes in the gaming industry.  An online video game was even released in which users could “beat up” Sarkeesian.  These are just some of the many examples of demeaning attacks against women in the testosterone-driven tech world.

There are many state and federal laws that prohibit the kinds of workplace harassment that these women experience, including the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, the Bane and Ralph Act, and the California Constitution.  These laws provide strong protections against gender harassment in employment and other contexts.  So why do these attacks on women continue to happen in an industry that is supposedly progressive and populated with fairly educated adults?

It doesn’t help that tech companies are also notorious for their lack of diversity.  This year, Google released its first diversity report which revealed that 70 percent of its workforce was male, and 61 percent was white.  The workforce was also predominantly male and white at Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter, and LinkedIn.  Another report this year shows that the percentage of women occupying CIO positions at companies has remained stagnant at 14 percent for the last decade.  These numbers confirm what the stories reflect — that this industry truly is “a man’s world.”  And this needs to change.

Some may dismiss Wolfe’s lawsuit and similar complaints as coming from women who are hypersensitive.  Indeed, Wolfe claims that when she complained about Mateen’s harassment, she was dismissed as being “annoying” and “dramatic.”  While some degree of social adaptation may be expected when joining any company, particularly freewheeling start-ups, there are limits that must be respected.  Those limits are crossed when the pressure to conform to a white, male norm is so great that women who challenge this norm are further harassed or their voices suppressed.

Unfortunately, this marginalization of women who challenge the macho culture even comes from other women, who blame the “feminists” for making it harder for women to advance in tech.  This also needs to change.  Women who speak out about sexism and misogyny in the tech industry deserve the support of their colleagues, and men who turn to vitriol and juvenile behavior to intimidate deserve censure.

But change will not be achieved without help from sources outside the industry.  Attorneys and employee advocates must continue to bring attention to the rampant sexism that is “business as usual” in the tech industry.  We need to encourage tech companies of all stages and sizes to comply with employment laws, adopt proper HR practices, promote diversity and inclusion, and use objective standards to measure performance.  If the tech industry is serious about encouraging young girls to become coders and developers, it also needs to place women in conspicuous leadership roles and pay real attention to changing the “guy culture.”

The tech world doesn’t have to be a man’s world, and it shouldn’t be.

Lisa Mak

About Lisa Mak

Lisa Mak is an associate attorney in the Consumer & Employee Rights Group at Minami Tamaki LLP in San Francisco. She is passionate about representing employees and consumers on an individual and class basis to protect their rights. Her practice includes cases involving employment discrimination, harassment, retaliation, wrongful termination, labor violations, and severance negotiations. Ms. Mak is the Co-Chair of the CELA Diversity Committee, Co-Chair of the Asian American Bar Association’s Community Services Committee, and an active volunteer at the Asian Law Caucus Workers’ Rights Clinic. Ms. Mak is a graduate of UC Hastings School of Law and UC San Diego. She is fluent in Cantonese and conversant in French.

Organizations have the power to reduce unconscious bias

Organizations have the power to reduce unconscious bias

By Ramit Mizrahi

As I explained last week, unconscious biases harm women in the workplace. Rather than just putting the burden on women to navigate around biases, organizations should be focusing on fixing the problem.

Many people assume that it will take years, if not decades, to reduce the effects of biases because we must fundamentally transform how people think. But psychologists have identified at least six concrete steps that can alter the decision-making environment to reduce the impact of implicit biases in the short term. Each of these can be utilized in the workplace to create immediate improvements.

1.  Block biases by withholding identifying information.

When decision-makers are kept ignorant of the identifying characteristics of individuals (called blinding), they are prevented from acting based on stereotypes. For example, many orchestras conduct auditions behind a screen to conceal the musicians’ identities.  It has been estimated that this process leads to a 50% increase in women making it past the preliminary round, and a 30 to 55% increase in the proportion of female hires.

2.  Raise consciousness about bias whenever decisions are being made.

People discriminate less when stereotypes and group categories are made salient.  It may be than when we are conscious of commonly held stereotypes, we can actively work to avoid falling prey to them. Organizations should have open discussions about the effects of unintentional biases prior to making hiring and other employment decisions. The Implicit Association Test (IAT), a test used to help identify implicit biases, can also be used as a consciousness-raising tool to help people explore their implicit biases.

3.  Establish objective criteria whenever possible.

Research has shown that the more ambiguous criteria and subjectivity are allowed in making a decision, the more likely that unintentional bias can influence the process. Objective criteria should be established in advance to ensure that people are being judged on the appropriate measures.

4.  Give the decision-maker enough time and information to make decisions.

When people are distracted or under time pressure, they are more likely to fall back on ethnic and gender stereotypes to make decisions. Without adequate information, they tend to fill in the gaps with biased assumptions.  Organizations can correct for these tendencies by providing more time and information.

5.  Expand the “in-group” to include traditionally stereotyped people.

Some psychologists have concluded that the disparity between the ratings of in-group and out-group members stems more from a preference for in-group members than from a dislike of out-group members. Studies show that if people recognize a person as an in-group member (college alumni, from the same city, favors the same sports team… anything), they are less likely to focus on the other differences that make the person an outsider. So, for example, a company can create camaraderie among “teams” so that people relate to each other as members of the same group.

6.  Integrate workplaces and put women and minorities in positions of authority.

This is the ultimate solution. We know that the mere presence of a person can reduce stereotyping against her group. In fact, a whole body of research has shown that intergroup contact can reduce biases. However, if there are only one or two token women (or people of color) in positions of authority, others may simply write them off as exceptions to the rule. Women are not immune to these biases. Only when there is a number so large that they cannot be written off as exceptions will pre-existing stereotypes be fundamentally altered. Thus, the more numerous women are, the less biases affect judgments of them.

Two studies discussed in Virginia Valian’s book, Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women, reflect this point. In the first, 486 blue-collar and clerical work groups evaluated the performance of both men and women. When women consisted of less than 20% of a group, they were rated much lower than the men. When they were between 20% percent and 50% of the workforce, they were still rated lower than the men, though less so. But when women constituted 50% or more of the groups, they were rated more highly than males. The second study found that when women were 25% or less of an applicant pool, they were evaluated more negatively than when they made up 37.5% or more of a pool. In addition, the fewer women there were in the applicant pool, the more likely they were to be perceived as stereotypically feminine (i.e., unambitious, emotional, indecisive).

These studies lend force to the argument that a critical mass of women can suppress – or even alter – the implicit associations between sex and ability that lead people to judge women less favorably than they deserve. A critical mass of 20% has been proposed to break stereotypes. The more women we have in positions of authority, the less they will be harmed by unconscious biases. Reaching and surpassing this critical mass should be a top goal for employers committed to equal opportunity.

Since implicit associations affect the decision making of even the most well-intentioned people, biases will continue to permeate our workplaces unless employers take action.  Much has been written about what women can do in the short term to not be victimized by bias. The time has come for employers to “lean in” and take decisive action to prevent these biases from manifesting in the first place.

Ramit Mizrahi

About Ramit Mizrahi

Ramit Mizrahi, the founder of Mizrahi Law, APC, practices in the area of employment law, representing employees exclusively. Her work focuses on cases involving discrimination, harassment, retaliation, leave law issues, and wrongful termination. She is a graduate of Yale Law School, The London School of Economics, and UC-Berkeley.

Fifty years after sex discrimination became illegal, the focus is still on how women behave instead of changing organizations to eliminate gender bias 3

Fifty years after sex discrimination became illegal, the focus is still on how women behave instead of changing organizations to eliminate gender bias

programmerBy Ramit Mizrahi

Women: “Lean in.” “Be more confident.” “Ask for a raise, but do it in a way that is ‘feminine’ so you don’t come off as demanding or unlikeable.”

We’ve had a surge of self-help articles and books telling women how to navigate a biased system. But, fifty years after sex discrimination was first made illegal, shouldn’t the focus be on how to stop the bias in the first place?

In this two-part series, I’ll first discuss how implicit biases harm women in the workplace and then cover some of the steps we can take to reduce bias.

Identifying the Problem

Many male managers believe that the glass ceiling has been shattered. This opinion, however, is not shared by their female counterparts, who know from experience that sex discrimination is alive and well in the workplace. While overt discrimination has been on the decline for the past half-century, subtle forms of discrimination are still pervasive. This is especially true in high-level jobs where criteria for advancement are more subjective. Even well-meaning executives make judgments and take actions that reflect stereotypes and implicit attitudes that disadvantage female candidates for promotion.

In the past 20 years, there has been an explosion of research about what has come to be called cognitive or implicit bias. It all begins with the research proving that even the best-intentioned people harbor biases. This is true of men and woman of all ages and races; no one is immune. It’s not that we set out to judge women or minorities more harshly or treat them less favorably. What happens instead is that our internalized stereotypes and assumptions about certain groups of people end up influencing our judgments and evaluations without us realizing it.

As psychologist Virginia Valian has explained in her book Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women,

“A woman does not walk into the room with the same status as an equivalent man, because she is less likely than a man to be viewed as a serious professional.”

People hold gendered expectations, and women who don’t meet them are viewed as less capable. For example, if asked to visualize a computer programmer, for example, one will likely think of a man (probably “geeky” and younger); someone who doesn’t fit that image will then be at a disadvantage as people wonder if she’s “as good.”

When a man succeeds, his success is seen as confirmation of his innate ability, whereas a woman’s success is often attributed to luck or simplicity of the task. When she fails, however, her failure is seen as reflection of her (lack of) ability.

It gets even more complicated when assessing leadership, particularly in jobs that are perceived as masculine. Male leaders may be judged better than female leaders who are equally effective, but who lead with a less aggressive style. Attitudes about proper gender roles positively affect performance evaluations for leaders who conform to gender norms, and negatively affect performance evaluations of women who are engaged in nontraditional employment.

Gender norms can produce a double-bind effect. In some work environments women must speak more (or louder) than men if they want to get their ideas noticed, but when they do, they are derided as pushy. In problem-solving situations social scientists have observed that women get more negative facial expressions from both male and female peers, and are perceived less positively than men, even when they follow the same script as males.

Even “neutral” evaluators can be affected. When observing a woman struggling to be heard by others, receiving negative facial expressions, and having her points ignored, outside evaluators may attribute the reaction of peers to the woman’s lesser ability, or to her bossiness, rather than to gender bias. Professor Valian describes how people who would never endorse overt “statements such as, ‘Women do not command respect from their subordinates,’ may nevertheless feel comfortable saying, ‘Lee does not command respect from her subordinates.’ The latter comment is just a ‘fact’ about Lee, arrived at through impartial and fair observation.”

While each such instance on its own may be considered inconsequential, over the course of a woman’s career, they combine to undermine career success.

Subtle biases can lead to huge differences in how people are treated based on their perceived sex. In a 2012 study, Yale-based researchers sought to explore differences in how science faculty from large research universities rate applications for a lab manager position based on the perceived sex of the applicant. They sent 127 volunteer professors from six research institutions the application of an undergraduate science student who had applied for a lab manager position. Each of the professors received the same materials, except that some were randomly assigned the name of a female student while others were assigned a male name. They were asked to rate the student’s competence and hireability, as well as the amount of salary and mentoring they would offer the student.

The results were startling:

  • — The female student was deemed less competent (on a 5-point scale as with the other measures in this study, rated 3.33 by male faculty and 3.32 by female faculty as compared to the male rated 4.01 and 4.1).
  • — The female student was deemed less hirable (rated 2.96 by male faculty and 2.84 by female faculty as compared to the male rated 3.74 and 3.92).
  • — The female student was offered a mean starting salary of $26,507.94 as compared to $30,238.10 offered to the male student.
  • — The female student was offered less mentoring (a rating of 4.0 by male faculty and 3.91 by female faculty as compared to the male rated 4.74 and 4.73).
  • — The female student was evaluated as being more likeable, but that did not translate into positive perceptions of her competence of benefits in terms of a job offer, a higher salary, or more mentoring.

These results were consistent across gender, age, scientific discipline, and tenure status. The researchers concluded that faculty gender bias, unconscious and unintended, impedes women’s full participation in science.

Similar effects were observed in another study that focused on race. In a study targeting the legal profession, researchers enlisted five law partners to draft a memo on trade secret issues that would be presented as if written by a third-year litigation associate. They deliberately inserted 22 errors (including spelling, grammar, technical writing, factual, and analytical errors). Sixty law firm partners of different backgrounds were recruited to participate in a “writing analysis study,” and asked to review the legal memo written by “Thomas Meyer.” Half were told that the author was a white associate and half were told he was black.

Stark differences resulted in the assessments:

  • — On average, partners found 2.9 of the 7 spelling grammar in white Thomas’s memo as compared to 5.8 of the errors in African-American Thomas’s memo.
  • — Partners found an average of 4.1 of the 6 technical writing errors in white Thomas’s memo as compared to 4.9 in African-American Thomas’s memo.
  • — Partners found an average of 3.2 of the 5 errors in facts in white Thomas’s memo as compared to 3.9 in African-American Thomas’s memo.
  • — Partners provided 11 edits or comments on formatting for white Thomas while making 29 for African-American Thomas.
  • — Partners described white Thomas as someone who “has potential” with “good analytical skills” and a “generally good writer but needs to work on. . . .”
  • — They described African-American Thomas as follows: “needs lots of work,” “can’t believe he went to NYU,” and “average at best.”
  • — These biases were found across the spectrum of sex, race, and other traits.

The authors’ analysis is on point:

“When expecting to find fewer errors, we find fewer errors. When expecting to find more errors, we find more errors. That is unconscious confirmation bias. Our evaluators unconsciously found more of the errors in the “African American” Thomas Meyer’s memo, but the final rating process was a conscious and unbiased analysis based on the number of errors found. When partners say that they are evaluating assignments without bias, they are probably right in believing that there is no bias in the assessment of the errors found; however, if there is bias in the finding of the errors, even a fair final analysis cannot, and will not, result in a fair result.”

So what do we do? First, we must stop pretending to be sex blind, color blind, or blind to any other differences. Despite our best intentions, we are not. In fact, research has shown that people who most value fairness and objectivity are particularly likely to fall prey to biases, in part because they are not on guard against them.

This is not an easy task.  Fifty years after the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we can all agree that intentionally discriminating against someone because of her sex or race is an act that is morally reprehensible as well as illegal. But can we equally embrace the lesson learned from years of social science research into implicit bias – that we all harbor biases? Unless and until individuals and organizations are willing to grapple with this uncomfortable truth, we will be unable to dismantle these hidden barriers head on.

Ramit Mizrahi

About Ramit Mizrahi

Ramit Mizrahi, the founder of Mizrahi Law, APC, practices in the area of employment law, representing employees exclusively. Her work focuses on cases involving discrimination, harassment, retaliation, leave law issues, and wrongful termination. She is a graduate of Yale Law School, The London School of Economics, and UC-Berkeley.

Pillage in private: Raiders try to punt cheerleader wage claims into arbitration

Pillage in private: Raiders try to punt cheerleader wage claims into arbitration
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Oakland Raiderettes Lacy T. and Sarah G. filed suit against the Oakland Raiders for various labor law violations.

Employee and consumer advocates have been screaming for years about the harsh realities of arbitration clauses.  We’ve decried them for being secret; for being unfair; and unconscionable and unconstitutional.  Like the frog in the slowly heated pot of water, the public has remained idle in the face of an unprecedented erosion of their rights.  Traction in the media has been hard to come by, and it has been worse among Congressional leaders.

Turns out all we needed was a little pom-pom pizazz.  The media has latched onto the allegations being made by Lacy T., a former Oakland Raider cheerleader and member of the team’s Raiderettes.  Lacy T. has filed a class action lawsuit against the Raiders for wholesale violations of the California Labor Code – failing to pay minimum wage for all required hours worked, failing to pay overtime, failing to provide mandated meal and rest breaks, making illegal deductions from wages for a laundry list of “infractions,” as well as for costs the employer is required to cover, and failing to pay wages on time.

The case has garnered an extraordinary amount of attention, considering the abuses alleged are endemic to low wage positions in many industries.  Undoubtedly, the intense media interest is fueled by  the NFL’s high profile, the fact that every story provides an opportunity to display pictures of the Raiderettes in uniform, and the prospect that this wage dispute may provide titillating details of the Raiders’ demeaning treatment of its cheerleaders.  As the NFL knows, sex sells. Even if it doesn’t pay enough to buy gruel.

The latest Dickensian twist in Lacy T.’s case occurred last month when the NFL moved to have the minimum wage claims taken out of a public courtroom and put into a secret arbitration to be presided over by its $44 million man, NFL Commissioner Roger Goddell.  The claims in the case, and the Raiders’ response, show just how much the team’s management has turned its back on a proud history at the cutting edge of employment civil rights.  Al Davis was the first NFL owner to hire an African-American head coach (Art Shell), a Latino head coach (Tom Flores) and a female CEO (Amy Trask).  But by invoking an arbitration clause unilaterally imposed on its Raiderettes, and pushing Lacy T.’s case into a secret arbitral forum, the Raiders have perverted another of the late Mr. Davis’ ends-means mottos:  Just Win, Baby.

Arbitration was originally conceived by Congress in the 1920s as an alternative mechanism to resolve business disputes.  In the years since, it has steadily been perverted into a means for businesses to steal from and cause injury to individuals without any real threat of liability or significant financial consequence.

It is no small irony that secret arbitration has been championed at the highest level by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.  Twenty three years ago, during Thomas’ Supreme Court confirmation hearings, Anita Hill publicly accused Thomas of sexual harassment. Her testimony (and the appalling questioning by the Senate committee) riveted the country.  Through her courageous actions, the entire country awoke to the existence of sexual harassment in the workplace.

Today, Professor Hill has been making the rounds publicizing “Anita,” a new documentary about the experience.  Two decades after exposing an insidious workplace problem on the national stage, she is asking a new generation of workers – women and men – to consider the lessons of those hearings.

Which brings us back to Lacy T.   Yes, the media is just as itchy today to publish salacious details about the Raiderettes as it was to report on Clarence Thomas’ crude statements in 1991.  The difference today is that the media may not be given any such opportunity to cover the details of a modern scourge for low-wage workers: wage theft.  And as long as workplace problems – of any kind – are denied public scrutiny and forced into secret star chambers, progress will be elusive. “Anita” reminds us that public testimony can be painful.  But it’s often how change is made.

Christian Schreiber

About Christian Schreiber

Christian Schreiber is a partner at Chavez & Gertler, where he works primarily on class actions involving employment and consumer rights, civil rights, and financial services matters.

International Women’s Day now means progress without equity

International Women’s Day now means progress without equity

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By Elizabeth Kristen

International Women’s Day, celebrated worldwide this past weekend, started out as  “International Working Women’s Day” in 1911. One week later, the notorious Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911 broke out, killing over 140 workers – mostly women – who were trapped inside the factory. The horror of that fire and the working conditions imposed on the women locked inside the factory galvanized the labor movement and the women’s rights movement. Even though the name may have changed, this annual day honoring women is the perfect time to take account of the barriers working women still face today.

Working women in the United States confront challenges ranging from workplace discrimination and harassment to unequal pay and inadequate leaves of absences.  The 2014 Shriver Report:  A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink collects essays that detail how these barriers impact not only working women, but their families, the economy and society as a whole.

Discrimination and harassment – Women continue to face unlawful discrimination and harassment on the job based on sex, pregnancy, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, national origin, disability, and many other characteristics.  The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the agency that enforces our federal civil rights laws published its statistics for charges filed in Fiscal Year 2013.  Charges of sex discrimination constituted approximately 30% of the charges filed with the EEOC.  The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, the state agency that enforces our state civil rights laws published its statistics for 2012. This data showed that sexual harassment charges were approximately 60% of the charges filed regarding sex discrimination and harassment.  These statistics demonstrate that employment discrimination and harassment continue as serious problems for working women.

On the legislative front of women’s rights issues at the federal level, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act would strengthen the protections for working pregnant women.  We also need the protections of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity across the country.  But these laws must also be enforced, which means vigilant leadership and restoration of the funding cuts that have undermined the California and federal agencies charged with civil rights enforcement.

Gender-Based Wage Gap – Despite the fact that gender-based pay discrimination has been against the law for over 50 years, women in the United States still face a significant wage gap.  Recently, there has been little progress in closing the gap in wages between women and men.  As of 2012, women’s median earnings were 81% of men’s.  And the wage gap is worse for women of color.  Because women are breadwinners for their families, the impact of wage discrimination is felt across the board.  The Paycheck Fairness Act, pending in Congress, would help fight gender-based pay discrimination

Leaves of Absence – Women are still the primary caregivers in the U.S. and they also often must take time off work for pregnancy and childbirth.  Yet the U.S. lags behind nearly every other country in the industrialized world in terms of how much leave it provides for caregiving, pregnancy and childbirth.  The federal Family and Medical Leave Act provides for job-protected leaves of absence for caregiving as well as for pregnancy and bonding leave.  However, the FMLA is unpaid leave and many workers cannot afford to take unpaid leave.  The FMLA also provides no protection for those workers at companies with fewer than 50 employees at or near their worksite, those who have worked for the employer for less than a year, and many who work part-time. Additionally FMLA takes a narrow view of what it means to be a family member, drawing a tight boundary around the nuclear family– parent, child, and spouse.   Grandparents, siblings and other extended family are not included.

The California Paid Family Leave Law, the first of its kind in the country, provides partial wage replacement to workers who take time off to care for family members or bond with a new child.  As of July 2014, California workers will be able to take  paid family leave for a broader group of family members that will include grandparents and grandchildren, siblings, and parents-in-law.

Some federal legislators are already taking the cue from California with a pending bill in Congress to provide paid leave nationally.  They should keep up the momentum and improve the FMLA to extend coverage to more workers and to widen the circle of who is considered “family.”

The United Nations’ theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is “Equality for Women is Progress for All.”  The global gender gap index shows a strong correlation between a country’s gender gap and its economic competitiveness. Given the fact that women are at least half of the potential workforce, a nation’s economic competitiveness depends on how it treats women. Improving the lives of working women will enhance progress for all working families and our national economy.  When that happens, we will all be able to proclaim “Happy International Women’s Day”!

Elizabeth Kristen

About Elizabeth Kristen

Elizabeth Kristen is the Director of the Gender Equity & LGBT Rights Program and a senior staff attorney at Legal Aid at Work.  Ms. Kristen began her public interest career as a Skadden Fellow at Legal Aid.  Ms. Kristen graduated from University of California at Berkeley School of Law in 2001 and served as a law clerk to the Honorable James R. Browning on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.  In 2012-13, she served as a Harvard law School Wasserstein Public Interest Fellow.  She has been a lecturer at Berkeley Law School since 2008. Legal Aid at Work together with the California Women’s Law Center and Equal Rights Advocates make up the California Fair Pay Collaborative dedicated to engaging and informing Californians about fair pay issues.

Sweat, blood, tears and stock options: the labor laws that protect all of us, even startup entrepreneurs

Sweat, blood, tears and stock options: the labor laws that protect all of us, even startup entrepreneurs

By Daniel Velton

If you live in Silicon Valley, it’s hard to miss news about deals like the recent $19 billion acquisition of WhatsApp, a young instant messaging company with a mere 55 employees. Or the $1 billion purchase of Instagram, a photo-sharing startup employing only about a dozen folks. Or the blockbuster deal for Waze, a small smartphone navigation company.

The lore of startup culture is by now well known. These often casual workplaces boast features like ping pong tables, 3D printer vending machines, skeeball, rock climbing walls, motorcycles, video games, draught beer taps, yoga mats and arcades. (Now television viewers can tune in to the startup world through a new HBO series.)

As hard as startuppers play, they work even harder. In their blur of 60-80 hour workweeks and caffeinated coding, dreams of being part of The Next Big Deal feed their dedication. They give up a lot of themselves and their personal lives in exchange for the elusive prospect of an early retirement. Many, though, often lose sight of the fact that there’s at least one thing they don’t give up — their rights.

California’s labor laws protect all of us, whether we work in shorts and flip-flops (or bunny slippers) in a fast and loose startup culture, or in slacks and dress shirts in a more traditional corporate environment.   More than one startup has learned this lesson the hard way.  The free-wheeling culture at Square Inc. has been cited by some as leading to a sexual harassment claim against the company’s chief operating officer.  Then there were claims of intimidation, violence and gunplay at the heart of a retaliation lawsuit against Color Labs’ co-founder.  And then there is the seminal Silicon Valley age discrimination case – Reid v. Google, Inc. – involving a 52-year-old manager allegedly referred to by managers as a “fuddy-duddy” with ideas “too old to matter.”   Eventually, his termination lawsuit went all the way to the California Supreme Court, which ruled that comments like those could establish age discrimination.   Finally, though well past its start-up phase, even tech giant Oracle Corporation was recently hit with a claim for retaliation by a sales manager who objected to what he says was national origin discrimination against Indian employees.

Silicon Valley interests may have successfully pushed through an 11th hour budget trailer in 2008 to end overtime pay for many computer professionals, but even in the wild world of startups, there are still laws protecting workers.  The bottom line is that laws that prohibit discrimination, retaliation and harassment, statutes that require employers to accommodate disabled employees, rules that mandate overtime pay for most hourly workers — these and many other protections cover all of us, regardless of where we work.

Startup employees may sell their souls, but they should be mindful that their legal rights don’t go away as part of the bargain.

 

Daniel Velton

About Daniel Velton

Daniel Velton began his career with the largest labor and employment law firm in the world. Using that experience, he brings valuable knowledge and perspective to his current practice, in which he exclusively represents employees in individual and class action discrimination, wrongful termination, harassment, wage and hour, and other employment cases.

Workplace flexibility is good for everyone

By Elizabeth Kristen

David Chiu, President of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, recently introduced innovative legislation to help working families.

Titled the Family Friendly Workplace Ordinance, the bill would allow employees to ask for modifications at work to better accommodate their family caregiving responsibilities without fear of retaliation or other negative job consequences.  The bill was originally to be placed on the ballot but now will be regular legislation as it has garnered the support from San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee.

If enacted, the new law would provide employees at companies with 20 or more workers with the right to request modifications at work, such as a later start time or a predictable work schedule to assist with family caregiving, and requires that the employer engage in a conversation about the request. The employer is not required to grant the request if it has a good faith business reason, and if it does grant it, can later revoke it.

A recent caller to Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center’s work and family helpline from San Francisco was trying to navigate care for her newborn when she returned to work – her baby was 2 months old.  She tried to work with her employer so that one day a week she could leave earlier than she had in the past.  She offered to stay later a different day to make it up, but her employer flatly refused and she felt crushed that they would not work with her so that she could manage childcare for her infant.

Unfortunately, her story is all too common.  Workers who need more flexible work schedules (or more predictable work hours) to attend to caring for ill or elderly parents also would benefit from this law.  Another helpline caller whose mother had been diagnosed with Alzheimers asked her employer to change her shift so she could arrange for her mother’s care.  The employer refused, without even considering whether this was feasible for the company.

As Professor Catherine Albiston, professor of law and sociology at U.C. Berkeley, recently explained, without legal protections workers who ask for flexibility are stigmatized, passed over for promotions, paid less, or seen as less committed to the job.  Because women have traditionally borne most of the responsibility for family caregiving tasks, the burden of such negative workplace consequences has fallen more heavily on women.

A study of a similar law in the UK found that businesses also benefitted from workplace flexibility.  In fact, “70 percent of employers surveyed said flexibility helped recruit better workers and kept employees engaged and motivated.”

Supervisor Chiu noted that “The experience in other countries has been extremely positive. In Britain in the first year after this law passed, one million parents requested flexible working arrangements. Nearly all of these requests were granted with little opposition by employers.”

The legislation is an important first step toward making workplaces better for everyone with family or caregiving responsibilities. Some have also argued that the bill will help San Francisco stop the flight of families out of the city.  San Francisco has the lowest percentage of children (13.5%) of any major city in the country and legislation like the Chiu ordinance may help keep families with children in San Francisco.

Elizabeth Kristen

About Elizabeth Kristen

Elizabeth Kristen is the Director of the Gender Equity & LGBT Rights Program and a senior staff attorney at Legal Aid at Work.  Ms. Kristen began her public interest career as a Skadden Fellow at Legal Aid.  Ms. Kristen graduated from University of California at Berkeley School of Law in 2001 and served as a law clerk to the Honorable James R. Browning on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.  In 2012-13, she served as a Harvard law School Wasserstein Public Interest Fellow.  She has been a lecturer at Berkeley Law School since 2008. Legal Aid at Work together with the California Women’s Law Center and Equal Rights Advocates make up the California Fair Pay Collaborative dedicated to engaging and informing Californians about fair pay issues.

Iowa Supreme Court re-affirms statutory right of jittery, insecure spouses to interfere in the workplace 2

Iowa Supreme Court re-affirms statutory right of jittery, insecure spouses to interfere in the workplace

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By Curt Surls

Imagine the pilot episode of a revival of the 1970’s situation comedy “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”  It is July 2013.  After a painful break-up with her fiancé, 30-year-old Mary Richards relocates to Des Moines, Iowa, to start a new life.

Mary interviews for a secretarial position at a local television station with Executive Producer Lou Grant.  Lou is an overweight, balding, married father of three grown daughters.  Lou offers Mary an associate producer position, reporting directly to him.  Lou’s wife Edie is threatened by the presence of an attractive, young woman in the workplace.  Edie demands that Mary be fired immediately.  Lou admits that he is attracted to Mary, even though their workplace relationship has been strictly professional.  Lou fires Mary.  He replaces her with Rhoda.  In Iowa in 2013, Mary has no legal recourse.

This month, the Iowa Supreme Court reaffirmed its controversial December 2012 decision holding that a fifty-something Fort Dodge, Iowa dentist acted legally when he fired his 32-year-old dental assistant for being too attractive.  Although the dental assistant had shown no interest in her married boss, both the dentist and his wife feared that he would be powerless to resist her charms.  In a decision insulting to both major genders, the Court reasoned that the firing did not constitute gender discrimination because it was not “because of sex.”  Instead, the Court reasoned, it was motivated by the dentist’s feelings of attraction for a specific person (I suppose you could call it “because of sexy”).

The latest version of the case, Melissa Nelson v. James H. Knight, DDS, P.C. can be read in full here.

Here is the official photo of the Justices of the Iowa Supreme Court.  See if you can spot what they all have in common.

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Melissa Nelson was only 20 when she was hired by Dr. James H. Knight as a dental assistant.  For ten years, she was an exemplary employee.  She regarded her boss as a “father figure.”  Dr. Knight, on the other hand, found himself growing increasingly attracted to his young assistant.   In 2009, Dr. Knight’s wife insisted that her husband’s unilateral attraction to Ms. Nelson was a threat to their marriage.  Dr. Knight and his wife consulted with the senior pastor of their church, who blessed the decision to terminate Ms. Nelson.   Ms. Nelson sued for gender discrimination.  The trial court and the Supreme Court of the State of Iowa agreed with the Knights — and their pastor–and held that firing Ms. Nelson for being a potential threat to Dr. Knight’s marriage did not constitute illegal gender discrimination.

The Court’s original decision in late 2012 was greeted with outrage and ridicule.  In June 2013, the court withdrew its opinion and agreed to reconsider the matter, giving rise to the hope that they had seen the light and would permit the case to go to trial.  Those hopes were dashed when the Court reaffirmed its position that there is a difference between an employment decision based on personal feelings towards an individual and a decision based on gender itself.  “In the former case, the decision is driven entirely by individual feelings and emotions regarding a specific person,” stated the opinion’s author, Justice Edward M. Mansfield (he’s the one in the back row, far left).  “Such a decision is not gender-based, nor is it based on factors that might be a proxy for gender.”

Wait a minute, argued Ms. Nelson’s attorneys and reasonable people everywhere.  Of course it was “because of sex.”  If she were not female, she wouldn’t be in danger of involuntarily attracting the unwanted attention of her heterosexual male boss.  If it is illegal to sexually harass an employee, why should an employer escape liability for firing an employee out of fear that he was just about to harass her.  Under this logic, even an employee who spurns the sexual advances of her supervisor is vulnerable to dismissal under a fabricated “my wife made me fire you to save our marriage” defense.

But back to Mary Richards.  In the eponymous spin-off series “Lou Grant,” Lou found a job as a newspaper editor for the fictitious Los Angeles Tribune.   What if he re-hired Mary?  Could Edie get her fired again in California?  Not likely.

The Iowa Supreme Court was interpreting Iowa law and federal law from the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.   The Court relied heavily on 8th Circuit precedent holding that sexual favoritism is, in essence, a private matter between the parties that doesn’t warrant regulation as gender discrimination.  California state law takes a broader view of the impact of sexual favoritism on the workplace environment.  Our Supreme Court has recognized that sexual favoritism is not merely a private matter.  Instead, favoritism can create an atmosphere demeaning to women, giving rise to claims of a hostile work environment by both men and women.  California courts are, therefore, likely to view conduct such as Dr. Knight’s in the broader context, and find a termination under similar circumstances in California to be discriminatory.

And besides.  Why would Lou even listen to Edie?  They got divorced after the third season of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and Edie promptly remarried.  You can watch the wedding here.

Curt Surls

About Curt Surls

Curt Surls has been practicing in Los Angeles, specializing in employment law, for almost 25 years. Mr. Surls is a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation, a non-profit professional association honoring lawyers whose careers have demonstrated dedication to the welfare of the community and the traditions of the profession. Prior to opening the Law Office of Curt Surls in July 2012, he was a partner with Bornn & Surls for over 15 years. Mr. Surls was also an attorney with the Oakland civil rights firm then known as Saperstein, Seligman & Mayeda, specializing in employment and civil rights class actions. Mr. Surls also worked for the Department of Industrial Relations and the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles.

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