Category Archives: Discrimination

You are Harming Your Child with Your Words

Article first published as You are Harming Your Child with Your Words on Blogcritics.

Listen to the endearments parents and other adults use for children. There are two kinds: the ones they use for girls and the ones they use for boys.

Girls are sweetheart, sweetie pie, sugar, honey, dolly, princess.

Boys are champ, chief, buddy, pal, kiddo.

These differences follow the children as they grow up. Sales clerks and doormen (and doormen are nearly all men) call women “sweetheart” or “honey.” Men are “buddy,” “pal,” or “chief.” (The exceptions are ma’am and sir.)

These differences matter. As children, girls learn to be sweet and ingratiating because they have learned that cuteness and niceness make them lovable; boys learn that they can be leaders, in charge of and superior to others — even on an equal footing with adults (“buddy” and “pal”).

Perhaps even more interesting than the effects of these endearments on children is adults’ reflexive use of different endearments for girls and for boys. Whether or not you believe that the names parents and other authority figures use for their children affect those children, it is undeniable that adults instinctively think of their girls and boys differently. Do they not think their sons are sweet? Do they not think their girls are champs? Do they expect different behavior from girls than from boys? And where does the reflex to use different endearments come from?

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Turning the Other Cheek: Illegal Retaliation in the Workplace

Turning the Other Cheek: Illegal Retaliation in the Workplace

If someone went to your employer and said you were discriminating against them, wouldn’t you hold a grudge? Wouldn’t you want to get them fired, and if you couldn’t do that, at least make their lives more difficult? Of course you would (and if you honestly wouldn’t even want to, see your parish priest about nomination for sainthood and/or enjoy nirvana). That is why there is more retaliation going on in American workplaces than there is discrimination (and there is plenty of that going on too).

It is illegal under federal law (Title VII § 704) to retaliate against an employee for complaining about workplace discrimination. That applies to everyone from the employee’s supervisor all the way up the food chain to the CEO. But people being what they are, they retaliate anyway. There are many time-honored forms of illegal retaliation, among them firing, demoting, transferring, changing work schedules, cutting bonuses, assigning lame accounts or thorny clients, and general day-to-day hassling.

In the past what was and wasn’t illegal retaliation was unclear, partly because the federal appellate courts disagreed with each other about the definition, and partly because different federal courts within each circuit (i.e. group of states) agreed with each other about how to word the rule against retaliation but disagreed about what it meant. Time was that in many circuits you could get away with retaliation if you did it outside the workplace. That left the door open for prank calls, letting air out of tires, toilet papering, and any other non-work-related harassment that was short of a misdemeanor.

In some circuits, you could transfer an employee to a distant office or put the employee on the graveyard shift, as long as what you did was not a “materially adverse change in the terms and conditions” of employment. In yet other circuits the line you couldn’t cross was the “ultimate employment decision,” meaning you couldn’t fire, cut pay, demote, or take other actions of similar severity, but anything less was okay. Then there were the circuits that said illegal retaliation encompassed anything that was likely to dissuade “a reasonable worker” from complaining about discrimination. Those circuits won when the Supreme Court resolved the whole mess a few years ago in a case called Burlington Northern v. White, which closed the door to retaliation outside the workplace.

In Burlington the employee, Sheila White, filed suit against her employer, Burlington Northern, for discrimination and retaliation. The retaliation she alleged consisted of changing her job responsibilities and suspending her for 37 days without pay, though the company later paid her for those 37 days. The Supreme Court decided that even though the change in her job responsibilities was not a demotion, and even though she ultimately received all of her pay, she had still suffered illegal retaliation. The change in job responsibilities was a change from the relatively clean job of operating a forklift to the much dirtier and more arduous tasks of cleaning up railroad rights of way and carrying heavy loads back and forth. And the 37 days she didn’t receive any pay included Christmas; there was no money for gifts in the White household that year. The Supreme Court said that a reasonable employee could easily look at what Burlington Northern did to White and decide that reporting discrimination to this employer just wasn’t worth it.

So, problem solved – everyone across the country now knows that even actions unrelated to the workplace can constitute retaliation. If only.

The problem with our courts is not judicial activism, but the opposite. I don’t know if it is a question of effort, ability, or just not giving a damn, but somehow courts managed to mess up the Supreme Court’s clear ruling when they tried to apply it in their own cases. One example is Hicks v. Baines, a case in the Second Circuit (which encompasses Connecticut, New York, and Vermont).

The issue that tripped up the Hicks court had to do with what is called the prima facie case, which just means that there is a certain minimum amount of evidence or argument that a plaintiff has to provide just to stay in court. Satisfying that minimum often doesn’t take much, but a plaintiff has to know what exactly to show in order to keep a case alive.

In Burlington Northern the Supreme Court made it crystal clear that you couldn’t sidestep the rule against retaliating by doing your retaliation outside of the workplace. Even if your retaliatory acts had nothing to do with the victim’s employment, they were still illegal as long as they would dissuade a reasonable employee from complaining about discrimination. So what does the Second Circuit in Hicks say that plaintiffs have to show to satisfy the minimal prima facie case and stay in court? An “adverse employment action.”

That’s right. According to the Second Circuit, just to keep the case alive, just to satisfy the bare minimum standard, the plaintiff has to show that the retaliation involved the employer doing something nasty that was work-related. The really jaw-dropping part is that the court laid this out in its written opinion just after a long discussion about Burlington Northern and how the Supreme Court had decided that anti-retaliation protection “extends beyond workplace-related or employment-related retaliatory acts and harm.”

Fortunately for the plaintiffs in Hicks, the retaliatory actions that they alleged were all employment-related, so the Second Circuit’s bizarre mistake did not affect the outcome of their case (for the record, they won part of it and lost part of it).

The important takeaway from Burlington: any retaliation for complaining about workplace discrimination is illegal, whether it is work-related or not, as long as it would dissuade a reasonable employee from complaining about discrimination. The important takeaway from Hicks: it’s not just judges’ political inclinations that you have to watch out for. Take a look at their GPAs too.

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The Top Ten Myths and Facts About Suing Your Employer for Discrimination

If you believe that someone at work is discriminating against you, one of your options is to go the legal route and bring a case against your employer. I’m all in favor of taking action again illegal discrimination, but you need to have your eyes open when you make up your mind to fire the opening salvo in a discrimination dispute. Here are ten myths and facts about going after your employer for sex discrimination.

1. Myth: Your employer will cave quickly and you will move on with your life.
Fact: There is a good chance your case will drag on longer than you could ever expect.

You would not believe how long discrimination disputes can take to resolve. Seven years is not unheard of. One reason is that there are many steps in the process before you even get to court, including attempting to negotiate a settlement and filing an administrative charge at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or equivalent state agency (this is mandatory before you can file a lawsuit in court); another reason is that once you’re in court you are at the mercy of the judge, and the mercy of some judges is very slow. Some women reach an agreement with their employers relatively quickly while others will be in it for the long haul. Employers and their lawyers do their best to make it worse by dragging things out as long as possible.

2. Myth: It won’t cost too much to pursue your case.
Fact: Pursuing your case will most likely cost more than you expect.

Lawyers, especially good and experienced ones, are not cheap. When you consider that most of them charge by the hour and put that together with #1 above, it is obvious that pursuing your case will cost you. This is another reason that employers and their lawyers try to drag things out – they are hoping you will run out of money, if you don’t run out of patience first.

3. Myth: Your employer is terrified of bad publicity.
Fact: Your employer will probably not surrender when you threaten to go public.

Nearly every woman who ever came to my office to discuss suing her company for sex discrimination told me that her company was scared of bad publicity, so if we threatened to publish her accusations in the press, the company wallet would fly open. Nearly every one of them was wrong.

There are two reasons that your boss won’t wet his pants when you brandish the phone number of a Wall St. Journal reporter. First, he knows that for you, press coverage is a gun with only one bullet. Once you pull the trigger, you’re out of ammunition – in other words, once the story hits the press, it is out there, and whatever power the threat of exposure did give you is gone.

Second and more important, your employer is presumably in the press a fair amount – certainly a lot more than you are. Your story will be one bad article, but the next day or week or month there will be a good article about the business. Your story will not define the company’s public image. But your story will probably define your public image for a long time. Your employer knows this, and is counting on you having more to lose from press coverage than the company does.

4. Myth: Your colleagues – both the ones who suffered discrimination and the ones who knew it was happening – will back you up.
Fact: Your colleagues will probably wimp out.

If someone at work is discriminating against or harassing you, he is probably treating your female colleagues the same way, and other colleagues have probably witnessed his conduct. It would be nice to think that the other victims and the witnesses would tell the truth about what happened to you in the workplace.

Don’t count on it. More often than not, colleagues plead ignorance or flat-out lie when asked to step up. They fear for their jobs and will usually choose continued employment over lending you a hand or standing up for justice.

5. Myth: Your case will expose your employer for the prejudiced, backwards institution that it is.
Fact: Other people will probably not find out how evil your employer is.

Usually “success” in a discrimination case means settlement; only a very small percentage of discrimination complaints go all the way to trial. And employers have a very nasty habit of insisting that your settlement remains completely confidential. It’s the equivalent of a gag order: you are not allowed to tell anyone about the discrimination or about the settlement. This is a particularly noxious tactic because it means that other women don’t know to stay away from your woman-unfriendly workplace, and the public in general has no idea how much discrimination is really going on. Forget about getting a bucket of money from your case and then writing a book-length expose about how vile your employer is. If you settle your case, no book. If you take your case all the way to trial, then no settlement agreement and no confidentiality clause. You could write the book and tell the world, and you would have years to do it (see #1), but you would need a big advance (see #2).

6. Myth: You will be avenged against the perpetrator when he loses his job.
Fact: The bad guy will probably not get fired.

One of the fondest wishes of most discrimination victims is to see the bad guy get what’s coming to him. Sadly, he very rarely will. Employers rarely fire the perpetrators of discrimination even when they lose discrimination cases in court and have to pay the victims lots of money. Occasionally they will transfer the jerks, but usually nothing happens. If seeing your boss canned is your primary motivation for suing your employer, forget it. Talk to a lawyer about some more realistic expectations.

7. Myth: You shouldn’t tell higher-ups or human resources about the discrimination.
Fact: Making a complaint to human resources can help.

Yes, your boss may retaliate against you. Yes, human resources probably won’t do anything helpful. But if you are serious about pursuing a discrimination case against your employer, you should do everything you can to end the discrimination and to get your attempts to do so documented. It will probably mean the end of your career at that company, but it will help your case. And who knows, maybe you’ll be one of the lucky few who actually have effective HR departments, you’ll be promoted and transferred to a new department, you won’t have to bring a case, you will never have to see your repulsive boss again, and justice will prevail. It does happen. It can help to see a lawyer even at this stage so she or he can coach you through this process.

8. Myth: It is illegal for your boss to treat you unfairly.
Fact: Unfair treatment is not always illegal.

Your boss can make your life miserable without breaking the law. For instance, if he treats everybody, male and female, like crap, then it’s not discrimination when he treats you like crap. If he assigns you all the scut work because he just doesn’t like you, but he treats other women well, then it’s not sex discrimination. He can cut your pay, transfer you, demote you, or even fire you just because he thinks you looked at him funny. As long as his reason isn’t your gender, then it’s not sex discrimination. It can help to keep notes about how he treats you and your peers so that if you decide to see a lawyer, you can give her or him a good picture of how your boss treats both you and other employees, both male and female.

9. Myth: The focus in my discrimination will be on my employer’s wrongdoing, not on me.
Fact: If your case goes to court, your employer and its lawyers will do their best to invade your privacy and keep the spotlight on you and whatever wrongdoing they can dig up or make up.

If you accuse your employer of unfairly firing, demoting, disciplining, or otherwise penalizing you, your employer will almost inevitably respond by saying that whatever it did was a fair reaction to your performance: your boss fired you because you were always late, or demoted you because all your peers outsold you. Whatever it is, your employer will try to keep the focus on what you did rather than what it did.

If your case goes to court things could get even worse. One of the pre-trial stages of litigation, called “discovery,” involves exchanging relevant information with the other side. Your employer may demand that you turn over all kinds of information you consider private, such as your journals or records from all your doctors. Just because the other side requests it doesn’t mean you have to turn it over, but you and your lawyer will need to have a good legal argument not to turn it over.

10. Myth: There is nothing I can do about the discrimination I face at work.
Fact: There are many things you can do. Sex discrimination is illegal, and if it is happening to you, you should do something about it.

The first nine myths and facts might have been just a little discouraging. Don’t give up. Consider it from a dollars and cents perspective: I and thousands of other lawyers have made a living representing employees who accused their employers of discrimination. We could not have done that if we never won.

Yes, you could stay in your job and do nothing, or leave your job without reporting the discrimination to anyone. But you could also report the discrimination to a manager or to HR; negotiate an exit that involves your employer paying you to stay quiet about the discrimination; file a complaint with the federal, state, or local government; or organize other women who are also experiencing discrimination and take on your employer as a group. This last option can be the most effective (see Part I and Part II of my article about settling gender discrimination class actions). The big class actions that you read about in the newspaper happened because more than one woman stepped up to take a company to task over workplace discrimination. When you work together with your colleagues you have more power, more credibility, and more support. If you do decide to try the class action route look for a lawyer with experience bringing class action discrimination cases, as they differ in significant ways from single-plaintiff cases.

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Every case is unique; all of the above are generalizations based on seeing a lot of cases over time, and this article is not legal advice. Many women before you have gone after prejudiced employers and made them pay, and it may be that you have a strong case, a strong stomach, and a good lawyer who can make you one of those women. You have the right to be treated equally – if your boss is breaking the law, he should suffer the consequences. Don’t decide to throw in the towel without seeing a lawyer about your individual circumstances. One good place to find a plaintiff’s employment lawyer is the National Employment Lawyers’ Association.

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Settling Gender Discrimination Class Actions (Part II)

It may not seem credible that gender discrimination remains widespread and systemic in American workplaces. Women outnumber men in colleges and graduate programs; they have entered the workforce in force; women run some companies, universities, states, and departments of the federal government.

Despite all this progress, though, discrimination persists. Women are only 17% of Congress members. Women head a mere 2.6% of Fortune 500 companies. In other words, men still overwhelmingly control our most powerful political institutions and our economy.

The familiar glass ceiling argument could explain this striking disparity: women can rise up through the ranks professionally, but at some point they hit the glass ceiling and cannot go any higher. If that were the only problem, it might explain why women are so conspicuously absent from the powerful positions listed above. But the gender disparities start well below the highest levels of power.

A striking pattern emerges from statistics analyzing the numbers of women at various levels in financial services companies (which I’ve become familiar with from representing so many women in discrimination cases against them). At the entry level, there can be as many female as male employees. At the next level up, women make up a smaller percentage of employees. At the next level, even fewer of the workers are women. And on it goes, until you reach the near complete absence of women from the position of CEO. Graphically, the numbers describe a pyramid: with every promotion the percentage of women shrinks.

Social scientists like
William Bielby of the University of Illinois at Chicago
and Barbara Reskin of the University of Washington
have studied this phenomenon and traced it to its roots: unconscious bias that affects subjective decision-making.

Even the most fair-minded people are subject to unconscious biases. The Implicit Association Test is one of many studies to demonstrate that people can have strong preferences and antipathies they may not be aware of. Even people who consider themselves very fair-minded can be unconsciously prejudiced against minorities, for example. To give a very rough summary of part of the underlying theory, people tend to think in terms of “in groups” and “out groups.” My “in group” is the group of people who are like me in salient ways such as gender, race, religion, age, educational background, profession, family status, etc. I tend to attribute more positive characteristics to members of the in group and more negative characteristics to members of the out group, who are unlike me. For instance, as a native Midwesterner, I may unconsciously prefer fellow Midwesterners to people from other parts of the country, although if you ask me whether I think Midwesterners are better than other Americans in any way, I will honestly answer that I don’t. The bias is unconscious.

Unconscious biases operate in the workplace as they do in every other sphere of human interaction, with the result that the groups in power tend to stay in power. Male managers may subconsciously believe that other men are more capable than women, outperform women, or are more committed to their work than women. Again, these beliefs can be subconscious, but they still affect decision-making. When it comes to a subjective decision such as who deserves a promotion, a male manager with an unconscious bias in favor of men is more likely to promote a man than a woman. The same is true of granting raises, distributing assignments, and making opportunities like management training available. This is how unconscious bias can combine with subjective decision-making to favor men (and other groups like whites) and to create the pyramid that leaves women at the lower corporate levels while disproportionately men climb to power.

There are other factors at work here too. People tend not only to think more highly of members of their in group, but to be more comfortable with them. As a result, a male manager may invite some employees to a golf outing or to dinner – nothing formal, just being a down-to-earth supervisor. He invites the employees with whom he feels most comfortable or thinks he has the most in common. A slew of scientific studies demonstrate that he is likely to feel most comfortable with the employees who belong to his in group – in this case, men. As a result, he gets to know his male subordinates better and become friends with them. When plum assignments or opportunities for promotion arise, the manager is more likely to dole them out to the subordinates he is more comfortable working with and is friends with.

Unconscious bias is difficult if not impossible to change. Researchers including Frank Dobbin of Harvard University have shown that common techniques for combating prejudice, such as diversity training, not only do not help – they actually backfire.

The way to tackle workplace discrimination is not to try to change people’s unconscious thoughts, but to make decision-making processes less subjective and therefore less vulnerable to unconscious bias. Action must come from the top of the organization: an employer that provides clear, objective criteria to guide otherwise subjective decisions, and that enforces the use of those criteria, will make the workplace less discriminatory by diminishing the opportunity for decision-makers’ unconscious biases to affect their judgment.

The settlement of the gender discrimination class action against Novartis discussed in the first part of this post takes a stab at making these kinds of changes. It requires Novartis to clarify and systematize the criteria for evaluating employees, to train managers to evaluate employees fairly, and to “calibrate” evaluations to check that evaluators are applying performance criteria in a uniform manner.

Where bias is conscious and discrimination is intentional, decision-makers will find ways around objective criteria for decision-making. Conscious prejudice presents an entirely different set of challenges than unconscious bias. But I’d like to believe that a lot of workplace discrimination results from unconscious bias and that employers will improve their procedures to protect decision-making processes from that bias. Some employers have already done so, albeit usually under court order (demonstrating the need for more discrimination class actions). Employer initiatives to make subjective decision-making more objective will help end workplace discrimination. Please post a comment to share your workplace experience.

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Settling Gender Discrimination Class Actions (Part I)

Eight- or nine-figure settlements of gender discrimination class action lawsuits regularly make news. It seems like discrimination this pervasive – essentially, discrimination as corporate policy – should be a relic of the Mad Men past. To the contrary, in countless companies and even entire industries, discrimination against women is business as usual. The latest example is Novartis, a pharmaceutical company, which settled a gender discrimination class action for up to $175 million last week. (Note that the first legal step in this case was taken seven years ago – keep that in mind before you run out to sue your boss.)

As a lawyer, I spent several years bringing and settling discrimination lawsuits against large employers. I talked with female employees who told similar stories of discrimination derailing their careers and sometimes even damaging their health. I learned that it will take an awful lot to eradicate gender discrimination against women at work.

Company-wide discrimination looks pretty much the same no matter the employer’s industry, region, or public image. Managers deny women opportunities for management training. They deny women in sales the best accounts and territories. When a woman succeeds in building up a previously lackluster account, management takes it away and gives it to a man. Managers exclude women from networking opportunities, management training, and promotions. They deny their female employees awards and recognition that they have earned. Managers penalize women who take legally-mandated leave to give birth or to bond with an adopted child. Offending companies pay men more than their female peers.

Then there is sexual harassment, which can include public humiliation, wildly inappropriate comments, even more wildly inappropriate touching, sexual propositions, public discussions among male employees and managers about their female colleagues’ and clients’ physical appearances or sexual proclivities, you name it. I know of a male manager instructing a female subordinate to unbutton her blouse more before meeting with a male client to increase her chances of making a sale. I know of a male manager raping a female subordinate. And everything in between.

Woe betide the woman who dares to complain about discrimination to Human Resources or to the government agencies responsible for enforcing anti-discrimination laws. The traditional next step is for the company to retaliate against her – never mind that retaliating against someone who complains about employment discrimination violates federal law. Retaliation means not only more of the same for the complaining employee, but worse. A manager who had not been in the habit of humiliating women in front of male colleagues and clients will take it up as a new hobby. Any raises, bonuses, promotions, training opportunities, etc. that management had promised to the woman vanish, never to reappear.

The Novartis complaint includes the detailed allegations of Novartis’s discrimination against 22 women. Combined, their stories cover pretty much all of these bases. One recurring theme is the utter pointlessness of complaining through official channels about discrimination or retaliation. Woman after woman reports that she submitted a complaint to Human Resources, and Human Resources ignored it.

This is not surprising. Human resources originated as a corporate response to the labor movement: companies discouraged employees from organizing unions by offering them newfangled personnel management or human resources departments to address their needs, assuring workers that their employers would take better care of them than unions would. From the beginning human resources was corporate CYA, tasked primarily with protecting the company from threats including unions and legal liability, and only secondarily (if at all) with helping employees. Some companies have moved past that history and created human resource departments that actually support employees, but that is far from the norm.

The Novartis settlement agreement, like many other class action discrimination settlements, focuses on reforming human resources and the complaint process so that it works for employees and not against them. The settlement agreement devotes page after page to detailing the coming reforms.

If all goes according to plan these reforms will be a welcome improvement for Novartis’s women, even if they are only partially successful. Theoretically they will serve three goals: (1) ending ongoing discrimination against individuals who file complaints (“complainants”); (2) preventing retaliation against individual complainants; and (3) deterring discrimination at Novartis. These are all ambitious goals, and perhaps not entirely reachable, but the most implausible is the second. Imagine the scenario: a woman files a complaint with her employer about her male supervisor’s discriminatory behavior. Human resources can warn him not to retaliate; his own bosses can warn him not to retaliate; the company’s lawyers can warn him that retaliation is illegal; but still, realistically, he will retaliate. Maybe he will be smart and it will be subtle. He won’t pal around with the complainant. His performance evaluation of her will be less than stellar. When he has the opportunity to promote somebody, if there is someone else with credentials reasonably similar to hers, guess who will get the promotion. And all this is the best case scenario. A less smart, less subtle supervisor will make the woman’s work life a living hell.

Reforming the human resources department at a company rife with gender discrimination is both necessary and laudable, but it is not sufficient (nor is it all the Novartis settlement agreement provides for – that document is 68 pages long). Ending discrimination can only happen before discrimination starts. Stay tuned for the details in Part II.

The Black Woman In My Closet

I just read The Help by Kathryn Stockett, a book about relationships between white women and their black domestic “help” in 1950’s Mississippi.  http://www.kathrynstockett.com/.  The book is an excellent read, thought-provoking and compelling.  I was appalled anew by the casual injustices, the ignorance, the segregation, and the day-to-day racism prevalent in that culture.   And then I discovered that the black woman who cleans my apartment eats her lunch in my coat closet.

In The Help, the black employees don’t sit down to eat with their employers in order to preserve the social hierarchy and avoid creating even the illusion of equality or friendship.  They don’t use the same bathrooms, ostensibly because of white fear of contamination from black cooties, but also as one more means of reinforcing the message that blacks are inferior servants in whites’ homes.  At first the book reads like a missive from a long-ago though still poignant time, a shameful history that thousands and thousands of people have worked hard to put behind us.   But it’s closer than we like to think.

Nearly every person who has ever been paid to clean my home, starting from my childhood, was a black woman (the others were immigrant women).  Right now I use a service that sends Amanda (not her real name) to my apartment every other week to spend a day cleaning my bathtub, emptying my garbage, changing the sheets on my bed.  My white guilt has kept me uncomfortable with the relationship and its reminder of Jim Crow and “domestics” who tended to white women’s houses all day.  But I treat her with dignity and pay her well, and since I was always away at work when she was at my apartment, I wasn’t often confronted with the unpleasantly familiar dynamic.

Now I work from home, which is how I found Amanda eating her lunch in the coat closet.  Feeling a little sick to my stomach, I asked her if she wouldn’t prefer to eat at the dining room table.  She said she wouldn’t because she just cleaned it and she didn’t want to dirty it up again.  I told her she could eat at the desk, on the couch, anywhere she was comfortable, but I have a bad feeling that she is most comfortable in that closet with the door closed, where she doesn’t have to confront us and vice versa. 

My employment relationship with Amanda is a common one in my neighborhood.  On a weekday there are gobs of strollers on the sidewalks carrying white children pushed by dark-skinned women.  Many of them likely have their own children whom they have left alone or in the care of a family member or friend so they could get paid to watch white people’s children.  The sheer number of these mismatched stroller duos is unsettling.

It’s no big news that although we have a black president, racism and economic inequalities persist.  It’s another thing to realize that each of us contributes to them.  I don’t know what to do about it on an individual level: it won’t help anybody for me not to employ Amanda or for my neighbors to fire their black or Hispanic nannies.  But as long as these economic relationships continue, the ghosts of Jim Crow walk among us.  They bring new meaning to the phrase “service economy”: the less privileged serve the more privileged and the colors of each remind us that poverty disproportionately afflicts minorities, while whites monopolize the best-paying jobs. 

The persistence of these patterns is disturbing, but it helps to remember that they are patterns and not universal rules – many blacks are successful professionals.  Nevertheless, blacks are still clustered on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder.

When Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, he was turning his focus from civil rights to economic rights, particularly the Poor People’s Campaign.  He was in Memphis to boost the sanitation workers’ strike and to raise awareness of the link between racial oppression and economic oppression, about the impossibility of eradicating one while the other remained.  Our failure to recognize or act on that truth is the reason blacks remain disproportionately poor. 

The next step is to pick up where Dr. King left off and fight for economic justice.  Get it on the national radar, remember it in the voting booths.  The minimum wage is nowhere near a living wage, not even half of it, so many people are struggling to hold down two minimum-wage jobs in a doomed effort to support their families.  The jobs in which minorities are concentrated, like childcare, tend to pay less than living wages and thus perpetuate black poverty and the old racial relationships without the need for anything as overt as Jim Crow laws and separate bathrooms.  It is time for Americans to ease up on the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mythology and accept the reality that it takes a whole society to eradicate poverty.  And if that is what we really want, we can do it.

Fashion Industry vs. Women

Though the modern feminist movement is well into middle age, the fashion industry, from designers to dry cleaners, still hasn’t caught up.  It continues to screw over its primary customers – women.

 One example is the sizing system for women’s clothes versus men’s.  Men get clear, informative labels on their clothes listing waist and inseam and collar and arm measurements in inches.  And men’s clothes come in different combinations of these measurements.  A man can be unusually proportioned and still be able to buy clothes without even trying them on.  In contrast, women are stuck with the dress size system, which differs with every designer and presumes that every woman has the same proportions.  Woe to you if you don’t: you are cursed to spend many hours of fruitless shopping until you finally find one pair of jeans that sort of fits.  Not to mention feeling like a hideous freak because “normal” clothes don’t fit your body.

 What is the rationale for this tyrannical sizing system?  Tradition?  A belief that women should have the “right” proportions, and if they don’t, they should do what it takes to get them?  Taking for granted that women are willing to spend more time shopping than men, so a stupid sizing system won’t deter them from buying?  Or maybe the industry keeps this up just to save money by producing only the regular dress sizes, rather than the different combinations of measurements that men get.

Another example of fashion’s neglect of women: watches.  Though I take a lot of crap for it, I admit that I can read a digital watch more quickly and accurately than analog.  That is not a problem when I’m in the market for a sporty and casual digital watch.  But just try to find a dressy digital watch proportioned for women.  Seriously, go ahead and try. 

I came up with a bunch of excuses for the inane sizing system for women’s clothes, but I can’t come up with a single reason for the watch thing.  It can’t be that watch designers haven’t noticed that many professionals are women; mayhap one or two of the watch designers themselves are women.  So why not create new products guaranteed to appeal to a broad customer base?  Are they actively trying not to make more money?

 And now for the dry cleaners.  They charge more to launder women’s shirts than men’s.  They charge more to dry clean women’s suits than men’s.  They claim the problem is that the machines they use are sized for men, so women’s smaller clothes have to be handled by hand.  Like that makes sense.  They have had decades to make smaller machines, or adjustable machines, or whatever equipment they need to clean smaller clothes.  Hell, they probably already have it and are just keeping it on the down low.  I think they are probably worse than the designers and manufacturers: they aren’t just being stupid or traditional or whatever; they are actively choosing to fleece women.  (I had such high hopes for that Dryel stuff that was supposed to let you dry clean your own clothes in your dryer.  If only it worked.)

 I’d love to jump up and down for a boycott of clothing and cleaners, but I suspect that it wouldn’t catch on.  And anyway it wouldn’t exactly advance feminism if we started showing up at work wearing just our shoes and maybe a jaunty necklace.  Rather, what we have here is a promising business opportunity for some entrepreneur who wants to create and market a line of women’s clothes that are sensibly and diversely sized and accessorized with slim, elegant, digital watches.  I’d love to help, but I can’t make the meetings because I don’t know what time it is.