Category Archives: Law

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.


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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Support the Federal Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Bill, Despite Its Flaws

Animals raised for food currently have no federal protection, but Congress will soon consider changing that. A bill called the “Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act” (HR 4733) has been introduced in the House of Representatives that would follow the lead of several states by taking a stand against gestation crates, veal crates, and battery cages. These are three methods of confining animals that are widespread (to the point of ubiquity) in factory farms and that cause animals relentless suffering.

Gestation crates are small metal cages only two feet wide that prevent pregnant pigs from turning around and even lying down comfortably). Sows spend most of their adult lives in these crates as they are inseminated soon after they give birth and thus kept pregnant over four out of every five months. Gestation crates cripple pregnant pigs and cause obesity. The fumes and toxins produced from the concentration of so many animals in one space sicken them (and the humans who “take care of” them). Pigs are smart animals, and the constant confinement, lack of activity or stimulation, and pain lead to neurotic behaviors like biting the bars of their cages over and over, or chewing on nothing.

Veal crates are also about two feet wide. Baby calves taken away from their mothers right after birth are chained by their necks inside these tiny wooden crates to keep them from moving – muscles would make their meat tougher. (Veal producers also deprive them of iron and fiber so their meat will be white.) Calves in veal crates never get to run, stretch, turn around, or even lie down comfortably, and they never will. They are usually killed at four or five months of age for “special-fed” veal or after just three weeks of life for “bob” veal.

Battery cages provide about four inches per hen in compliance with federal guidelines. Poultry producers cram four chickens into each 16-inch wide cage in order to maximize the number of eggs they can collect per square inch. The birds cannot spread their wings or lie down. They stand on wire mesh that cuts into their feet; sometimes their toes grow around the wire. The walls of the cage rub off the birds’ feathers and cause blood blisters. With no outlet to express their natural urges to dust bathe and to peck at the ground, birds peck at and injure each other (most have the ends of their beaks burned off as chicks in a painful, mutilating procedure intended to prevent this pecking). The concentration of so many hens in one space creates so much ammonia that it sickens the birds, hurting their lungs and making their eyes burn.

The Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act would not outlaw any of these cages, or any other form of cruelty against animals raised for food. It would only prevent the federal government from buying the meat of animals who were confined in gestation crates, veal crates, or battery cages. Several states have already gone further than this by banning these crates and cages, including Michigan, California, and Ohio, which banned or placed a moratorium on new gestation crates, veal crates, and battery cages; Colorado, Arizona, and Maine, which banned gestation and veal crates; and Oregon and Florida, which banned gestation crates. (All but Florida have phase-out periods before the prohibitions kick in. The federal law includes a two-year phase-out.)

Nevertheless, the federal bill is necessary. The major existing federal anti-cruelty statute, the Animal Welfare Act, excludes “farm animals, such as, but not limited to livestock or poultry, used or intended for use as food or fiber.” The only statute that offers animals any protection from the cruelty inherent in agribusiness is the Humane Slaughter Act, which is primarily honored in the breach. Slaughterhouse by Gail Eisnitz documents the frequent violations of the Humane Slaughter Act in horrific detail. And the Humane Slaughter Act does not protect poultry, thanks to a USDA regulation that hacks away at the statute. There is no federal law that prohibits cruelty to animals in factory farms for their entire lives before slaughter, and no federal law that gives poultry any protection at all.

It would be a victory just to have Congress adopt the Declaration of Policy in the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act: “It is the policy of the United States that the raising of livestock for food production shall be consistent with the basic principles of animal welfare.” More importantly, this bill would result in improvements to the lives of millions of farm animals because the federal government is one of the country’s biggest purchasers of meat. Paul Shapiro, Senior Director of the Factory Farming Campaign at the Humane Society of the United States, notes that the federal government buys approximately 1% of all the meat sold nationally. That translates to close to four million animals each year who would be spared three cruel forms of confinement, and in reality, the reforms would help many more animals than that as producers converted their entire facilities in order to qualify as government suppliers. Right there are four million reasons to contact your representative and ask her or him to support HR 4733.

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Is Injecting Stuff Into Dead Animals “Natural”?

It’s rare to find Perdue on the right side of an animal welfare issue, but don’t fret: it’s only because its two biggest competitors are on the wrong side, and that is hurting Perdue’s bottom line.

The issue is what it means to label chicken “natural.” Overlooking the fact that there is nothing natural about selling raw corpse-parts in plastic wrapping where people buy actual food, the question at hand is whether it is “natural” to inject said parts with salt, water, “and other ingredients.” Perdue is pissy because the two biggest poultry producers, Pilgrim’s Pride and Tyson Foods, inject but still use the “natural” label, while Perdue, coming in at number three, does not inject.

The purpose of injecting salt and other non-chicken substances into chicken carcasses is not to raise consumers’ blood pressure (as far as I know), but to enhance the flavor and appearance of the meat. As Jonathan Safran Foer writes in Eating Animals, the chicken at the supermarket is the remains of “a drug-stuffed, disease-ridden, shit-contaminated animal.” Injecting salt, water, and whatever else into the meat gives it “what we have come to think of as the chicken look, smell, and taste.” It also puts more pennies in the poultry producers’ pockets by charging consumers chicken prices for water weight.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is considering revising its labeling guidelines to make clear that injecting any non-chicken substance into chicken is not “natural.” If it makes that change, Perdue will gain market share when Pilgrim’s Pride and Tyson Foods lose their “natural” labels and consumers who want to eat “natural” meat choose Perdue instead – at least until the two biggest players lose the syringes and earn the “natural” label again.

Changing the labeling guidelines could result in marginally better treatment of chickens while they are alive. Chickens who are properly nourished, not over-drugged, given an environment in which they can maintain their hygiene, and slaughtered humanely will have more flavor and look better without injections. (Or so I’m told by people in the know – as you may have guessed I don’t eat meat myself, and I have very mixed feelings about advancing an argument that the government should do anything because it will make meat taste good.) Changing the labeling guidelines could also make the factory farming of chickens marginally less profitable and therefore perhaps a marginally smaller industry because poultry producers won’t be able to overcharge consumers for water and salt by selling them as chicken.

But then comes the backlash: Pilgrim’s Pride, Tyson Foods, and agribusiness everywhere will find another way to make up the lost profits, and it will probably come out of the chickens’ hides.

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.

Burqas: A Civil Right, Patriarchal Oppression, Liberating Refuge?

France is well on its way to banning burqas. Leftists generally consider this a Very Bad Thing, both because it discriminates against Muslims and because it would restrict civil liberties. Some feminists argue to the contrary that burqas are a tool of patriarchal oppression and France would be liberating Muslim women from a sexist practice by banning them. I see merit in both of these arguments, though the second requires some elaboration (more on that below). I also have a primitive gut reaction: burqas are creepy.

You already know this, but burqas are those head-to-toe black shrouds that cover everything but a woman’s eyes. They look hot and confining, and undoubtedly impair peripheral vision.

So here’s the creepy part: burqas cover the wearer’s face. Masks provide anonymity and thus, ironically, lend people who wear them a limited measure of freedom to act without consequences. This is why bank robbers wear masks or those stupid-looking nylon things on their heads. Spiderman, Zorro, the Lone Ranger – fictional or not, all wore masks to evade the consequences of their actions. I’m not suggesting that women are wearing burqas to facilitate crime sprees or to become vigilante superheroes, just that masks can make other people nervous, and for good reason: the wearers can see you, but you can’t see them. Something primitive inside me finds that threatening, while at the same time I feel bad for the women confined in what looks like some very unpleasant attire.

Back to the ideology and symbolism: when I see women wearing burqas I recoil at what appears to be extreme control of women by men, as feminists argue. (Full disclosure: I am a card-carrying feminist, which is no surprise to those of you who have read some of my other posts, e.g. Women: What Is So Bad About Your Names? or Fashion Industry vs. Women.) But many women who wear burqas say that they freely chose to do so, which brings us to the controversial topic of false consciousness. False consciousness occurs when (in this case) women “believe they know what’s going on, but they really don’t, and [therefore they] do things to support the…very system that oppresses them…without” intending to. From where I sit, choosing to wear a burqa looks like a classic example of false consciousness: women choose to wear an uncomfortable and unwieldy uniform for religious reasons, when really the burqa is not required by the Quran and serves the primary purpose of marking women as sinful objects who can lure men into profane behavior, while also making women’s lives more difficult. (Of course, the women who choose to wear burqas would argue that I am the one who does not know what is going on.)

Women choose to wear burqas for many reasons, among them that they feel freer when they wear a burqa because men do not stare at them or treat them as sex objects. That means that the problem is not the burqa itself, but the way some men think of women solely as sex objects whose most salient characteristic is their ability to distract men or seduce them into wrongdoing. Ultra-Orthodox Judaism provides another example of this phenomenon: men in that culture are not supposed to hear a woman singing, much less see a woman while praying, lest she distract them from their concentration on holiness. The implication is either that it does not matter if men distract women because women’s prayers are insignificant, or that women have no sexual drive and are not distracted by sexual desire – or both. (The complete disregard of homosexuality’s existence pretty much goes without saying when you’re dealing with this extreme level of religious observance.)

The religious discrimination arguments against banning burqas are sympathetic: singling out a religion for discrimination is a very, very dangerous slope to start down. But I’m not that concerned with protecting the right of a culture to swath its women head-to-toe in black, the same way I don’t respect the right of a culture to mutilate the genitals of its female children. Perhaps I appear naïve in saying that it is okay to discriminate against a religion in one way (banning burqas) but not in another (say, closing mosques), and expecting government to stay within those lines. In fact, I don’t expect government to stay within those lines. I do expect myself and others to exert all possible pressure on any government that goes beyond those lines. One step down a slippery slope does not guarantee a slide to the bottom when the public stands up to its government.

In the end, ironically, I come down against banning burqas for feminist reasons. A ban will do nothing to change the underlying religious and societal beliefs that force women to wear burqas or make burqas their most appealing option. I can’t say I know how to change those beliefs, but I do know that the primary impetus for change will have to come from Muslims themselves, not from the French government. The more a secular government tries to impose this ban from outside the religion, the more Muslims will resist it. By banning burqas, France would likely make them even more popular, and as a result could even reinforce the patriarchal oppression that created burqas in the first place.