Category: Feminism and Gender

7

Sexual Harassment and Retaliation

Michael Maslanka of work matters recently made some predictions about the Supreme Court’s handling of current employment law issues and about what the Court will likely take up next in this field. He predicted that the Court will soon address a growing split among district and some circuit courts on whether an employee engages in protected activity when he/she rebuffs an unwanted sexual advance. I was frankly surprised to see that there is a split on this issue, which seems fairly obvious to me. I will lay it out here and hope to hear what others think.

Under Title VII, it is unlawful for an employer to “discriminate against any of his employees or applicants for employment . . . because he has opposed any practice made an unlawful employment practice by this subchapter, or because he has made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under this subchapter.” In Dozier-Nix v. District of Columbia, the court recently found, correctly I think, that rejecting an unwanted sexual advance counts as “protected activity” under the opposition clause (i.e. “because he has opposed any practice made an unlawful employment practice by this subchapter”). But the court noted that not all courts are in agreement on this point and referenced a collection of cases on both sides of the issue and a recent Fifth Circuit case, LeMaire v. Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, that came out the other way. The Fifth Circuit rejected a retaliation claim based on rejection of sexual advances because the plaintiff had failed to provide any authority to suggest that it did constitute protected activity and cited an unpublished Fifth Circuit case in support.

Although the Fifth Circuit relied on a lack of authority, it seems to me to have overlooked the basic meaning of the retaliation provision in Title VII. Clearly, I think, rejecting sexual advances (i.e. sexual harassment) constitutes opposing a practice made unlawful under Title VII. Consider the likely scenario when this issue arises: A supervisor sexually propositions his subordinate employee. She (I’m using the genders most commonly associated with these claims but it could arise in many variations) rejects his advances, telling him she is not interested. Before she has a chance to complain about the sexual harassment to a manager, her supervisor demotes her, saying that after their interaction, he is no longer comfortable supervising her work. Eventually, the female employee complains and after a three-month investigation, the harasser is terminated. But for three months, the employee earns less money, has diminished responsibilities, and misses professional development opportunities. There is no doubt that her rebuff of the sexual advance led to an adverse employment action. I don’t think there is a doubt that the rebuff itself was protected activity. In fact, this scenario turns the sexual advance into a kind of after-the-fact quid pro quo harassment, and there is little debate about its illegality. The boss never told her she would be demoted unless she went out with him but her rejection led to that consequence.

Can courts that find such actions not to be protected activity really intend victims of harassment to endure sexual advances in the moment and complain later in order to insure they won’t face retaliation? What if the sexual advance was more than verbal? Is an employee required to endure physical touching or worse to preserve her job? I cannot imagine how the answer could be yes but perhaps I’m not seeing all sides of the issue. I’ll look forward to comments on this.

I also want to say that this is my final post as a guest blogger for the month of August. I am now back to focusing my energies on the fall semester, revisions to my forthcoming article  in the Berkeley Journal of Employment and Labor Law, and the roller-coaster that is the hiring market! I have truly enjoyed my time as a guest blogger. Thanks so much to CoOp for this opportunity.

 

3

The Parenting Debate

Although I am somewhat hesitant to add another voice to an already loud debate about the work-family conflict that has arisen again in the last month or so, I am finding it difficult to stay quiet.  As the working mother of a 3 ½ year old and a 3 month old, this is the legal and policy issue that affects me most these days.

When Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote her piece in the Atlantic, arguing that women in top government and business positions are leaving because of the difficulty of combining work and family, she predictably drew loud praise and equally loud critique (including an interesting post by Sherilyn Ifill, linked to from Concurring Opinions).  But then, Marissa Mayer, Yahoo’s newly appointed CEO, added her voice to the debate (perhaps unwittingly) when she told Fortune that she was pregnant and that her maternity leave would be “a few weeks long, and I’ll work throughout it.”  That comment brought a new onslaught of responses including criticism that she was doing a disservice to all working women whose employers would now expect them to “work throughout” their maternity leaves.

Whether this is a male/female issue or merely a parenting issue that cuts across gender, what is clear from the numerous opinions out there is that one size does not fit all.  In fact, if I am any example, one approach might not even work throughout one person’s working/parenting life. As a first time mom and associate at a law firm, I took a 6½ month leave, made possible by a hefty pay check and 12 weeks of paid leave.  Now that it’s my second time around and I am transitioning to academia, I chose to work from home through the first few months after my son was born and (mostly) don’t regret it.

The notion of privileging women or parents by building in options for them is not new and is, in fact, the dominant approach in many European countries and in Israel (which I have written about in the past).  But it has not been the American way.  Might we be changing?  In my prior article, I wrote about the emergence of the Israeli approach as a function of the society’s overall collectivist culture and a national interest in promoting reproduction and the parent-child bond.  I am wondering whether there is a chance that Americans could recognize this too.

Of course, that would not be the end of the debate.  What would the privileging of women or parents mean for equality?  If women (by law) gain options that men don’t have, do they come out equal, better, or worse?  For example, if we mandate paid maternity leave as some countries do, will employers stop hiring fertile age women out of fear that they will exercise this option and be less productive than men?  What if the option is non-gendered and open to all parents?  Will men exercise the option or continue to feel pressure to return to work immediately after a child is born?  Will women?  While the answers to these questions remain unclear, one thing is obvious—this is not a problem that parents can solve on their own.  Beyond the debate in the media, it is high time for a serious debate in government about remedies (beyond the Family Medical Leave Act) for working parents who are having trouble being good at both jobs.

 

0

Ifill on Having Even Half and What More Needs to Be Done

My colleague (and guest blogger) Sherrilyn Ifill has an insightful post on Anne-Marie Slaughter’s attention-grabbing Atlantic piece  and future book on the silly notion of “having it all.”  As Professor Ifill’s post makes clear, Slaughter’s lament captures a microscopic part of the problem–most working women, especially minorities, cannot remotely have any part of the illusory promise.  Professor Ifill calls upon professional women, the 1%, to help the plight of the other 99% of working women with kids, because they can and because they should.  Professor Ifill’s post on the relevance of legal scholarship rightly captured lots of attention, and this post should too.

6

Context is Everything

I am thrilled to be guest-blogging for Concurring Opinions for the month of August.  For my first post, I thought I would draw your attention to an interesting case out of the Seventh Circuit last month.  In Passananti v. Cook County, the court considered a hostile work environment sexual harassment claim brought by an investigator for the Cook County Sheriff’s Department.  The primary issue on appeal was whether the “frequent and hostile use of the word ‘bitch’ [was] a gender-based epithet that contributed to a sexually hostile work environment.”  In other words, is “bitch” always sexist?

Putting aside the use of the word in dog-training circles, you might be wondering how this word could possibly not be sexist? It turns out that the Seventh Circuit, in a prior case, actually concluded that the use of the word was not based on sex but rather on personal animosity that “arose out of an earlier failed relationship between the plaintiff and the harasser.”

But in Passananti, the Seventh Circuit reversed the lower court, finding that the mere use of the term in this case, without other gendered words, is sufficient for a finding of sexual harassment.  And the court, quite reasonably, pointed out that “when gender-specific language is used in the workplace . . . context is key.”  A laudable approach until you look one step further at the specific context that the court looked to for help here:  “The jury heard testimony that Sullivan used the word “bitch” regularly in reference to the plaintiff. He did not use the word in jest, but instead used it together with his threats against Passananti’s employment.”  Not exactly convincing. We are supposed to understand that the term is gendered because he didn’t use it in jest and was threatening her employment?

Most of us would agree that the supervisor’s use of the word “bitch” in this case was gender-derogatory for one simple reason:  he is a man, using a gendered word, against a woman, and there is no other explanation for its use.  Can the term have different meanings in other contexts?  Absolutely.  When women use it amongst themselves, for one, the term can be endearing or playful.  But it is rarely benign when spoken by a man and directed at a woman.  But nowhere in the court’s lengthy discussion of context does this simple truth appear.  Why is the court so hesitant to name this reality – that linguistic meaning is the product of multiple contextual factors, including, importantly, the identity of the speaker?

I’ll save additional discussion and some possible answers for a later post.  Suffice it to say, I am thinking a lot about this question right now and have just posted a draft of my article on the topic on SSRN. I’ll discuss the article in a later post but for now here’s the link to The N-Word at Work: Contextualizing Language in the Workplace.

 

 

 

 

 

0

BRIGHT IDEAS: Anita Allen’s Unpopular Privacy

Lucky for CoOp readers, I had a chance to talk to Professor Anita Allen about her new book Unpopular Privacy, which Oxford University Press recently published.  My co-blogger Dan Solove included Professor Allen’s new book on his must-read privacy books for the year.  And rightly so: the book is insightful, important, and engrossing.  Before I reproduce below my interview with Professor Allen, let me introduce her to you.  She is a true renaissance person, just see her Wikipedia page.  Professor Allen is the Henry R. Silverman Professor of Law and professor of philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.  She is also a senior fellow in the bioethics department of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, a collaborating faculty member in African studies, and an affiliated faculty member in the women’s studies program.  In 2010, President Barack Obama named Professor Allen to the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. She is a Hastings CenterFellow.  Her publications are too numerous to list here: suffice it to say that she’s written several books, a casebook, and countless articles in law reviews and philosophy journals.  She also writes for the Daily Beast and other popular media.

Question: You began writing about privacy in the 1980s, long before the Internet and long before many of the federal privacy statutes we take for granted. What has changed? 

 I started writing about privacy when I was a law student at Harvard in the early 1980s and have never stopped. Unpopular Privacy, What Must We Hide (Oxford University Press 2011) is my third book about privacy in addition to a privacy law casebook Privacy Law and Society (West Publishing 2011).  My original impetus was to understand and explore the relationships of power and control among governments, individuals, groups, and families.  In the 1970s and 1980s, the big privacy issues in the newspapers and the courts related to abortion, gay sex, and the right to die.  Surveillance, search and seizure, and database issues were on the table, as they had been since the early 1960s, but they often seemed the special province of criminal lawyers and technocrats.

To use a cliché, it’s a brave new world.   Since my early interest in privacy, times have indeed changed, the role of electronic communications and the pervasiveness of networked technologies in daily life has transformed how personal data flows and how we think about and prioritize our privacy.  Terms like webcam, “text messaging,” “social networking,” and “cloud computing” have entered the lexicon, along with devices like mobile, personal digital assistants, and iPads.

The public is just beginning to grasp ways in which genetics and neuroscience will impact privacy in daily life—I have begun to reflect, write, and speak more about these matters recently, including in connection with my work as a member of President Obama’s Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.

Question: Your book coins the phrase “unpopular privacy.”  In what way is privacy unpopular?  

First let me say that I think of “popular privacy” as the privacy that people in the United States and similar developed nations tend to want, believe they have a right to, and expect government to secure.  For example, typical adults very much want privacy protection for the content of their telephone calls, e-mail, tax filings, health records, academic transcripts, and bank transactions.

I wrote this book because I think we need to think more about “unpopular” privacy. “Unpopular” privacy is the kind that people reject, despise, or are indifferent to.  My book focuses on the moral and political underpinnings of laws that promote, require, and enforce physical and informational privacy that is unpopular with the very people that those laws are supposed to help or control.  (I call such people the beneficiaries and targets of privacy laws.)  “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” for instance, was an unpopular government mandated privacy for military service members.  My book suggests that some types of privacy that should be popular aren’t and asks what, if anything, we should do about it.

Question: If people don’t want privacy or don’t care about it, why should we care?

We should care because privacy is important.  I urge that we think of it as a “foundational” good like freedom and equality.  Privacy is not a purely optional good like cookies and sports cars.  Since the 1960s, when scholars first began to analyze privacy in earnest, philosophers and other theorists have rightly linked the experience of privacy with dignity, autonomy, civility, and intimacy. They have linked it to repose, self-expression, creativity, and reflection. They have tied it to the preservation of unique preferences and distinct traditions.  I agree with moral, legal and political theorists who have argued that privacy is a right.

I go further to join a small group of theorists that includes Jean L. Cohen who have argued that privacy is also potentially a duty; and not only a duty to others, but a duty to one’s self.  I believe we each have a duty to take into account the way in which one’s own personality and life enterprises could be affected by decisions to dispense with foundational goods that are lost when one decides to flaunt, expose, and share rather than to reserve, conceal, and keep.

If people are completely morally and legally free to pick and choose the degrees of privacy they will enter, they are potentially deprived of highly valued states that promote their vital interests, and those of their fellow human beings. For me, this suggests that we need to restrain choice—if not by law, then by ethics and other social norms.  Respect for privacy rights and the ascription of privacy duties must comprise a part of a society’s formative project for shaping citizens. Read More

0

Women in Big Law

This week the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) released its Survey on the Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms, which compiles data on the professional progress of women in the nation’s 200 largest firms. Most of the reporting on NAWL’s survey results has focused on the decrease in the number of female first and second year associates.  While the decline is only slight—47 percent of first and second year associates are women, compared to 48 percent a year ago—it is the first decrease since NAWL began reporting survey results in 2006.   NAWL speculates that the decline is attributable to changes in law school enrollments, where there have also been slight decreases in the percentage of female students.

The most interesting part of the report, however, discusses where women find themselves in the hierarchal complexities of today’s law firms.  As the NAWL survey points out, large law firms are no longer comprised of simply partners, associates, and a few of counsel.  Instead, firms are a mix of equity and non-equity partners, associates, staff attorneys, and of counsel.  Read on after the jump for sobering highlights about how women tend to fit into organizationally-complex large law firms. Read More

4

What Derb doesn’t get (about the reality of sexual harassment)

As noted in earlier discussions, conservative pundit John Derbyshire recently wrote: “Is there anyone who thinks sexual harassment is a real thing? Is there anyone who doesn’t know it’s all a lawyers’ ramp, like “racial discrimination“? You pay a girl a compliment nowadays, she runs off and gets lawyered up.” (Some other pundits have expressed similar views.)

For comparison, here are a few snippets from the facts of some court opinions in actual recent sexual harassment cases. (major trigger warning — these cases contain some extremely disturbing fact patterns) Read More

56

On Female Privilege

You mention male privilege in a blog post, and it’s inevitable: Someone else (usually male) will start asking about female privilege. If men have privilege, don’t women have privilege too? And does that undercut the idea of male privilege as a type of gender subordination which is built into society? (Because, the implication goes, we all have privilege — and so feminists should stop complaining about male privilege.)

And, so, predictably, some critics of feminism, “men’s rights” blogs, and the like have assembled lengthy lists of female privilege. (Women get their dates paid for — it isn’t fair!) And it’s true that there are areas where, taken on a stand-alone basis, male and female treatment appears to favor women. As we’ll see, I don’t think these areas really provide an analogue to male privilege.

We’ll start with the obvious, descriptive matter: Some areas exist in which women have some advantages. For one obvious example, some bars offer free drinks to women on some evenings. (Ladies night.) Looked at in isolation, these could be viewed as areas of female privilege. However, in context, it seems evident that this apparent female privilege fills one of two roles. Read More

42

Harassment, male privilege, and jokes that women just don’t get

A familiar theme comes up frequently in internet discussions: Women who complain about online harassment are just missing the joke.

As an initial descriptive matter, it’s pretty clear that women and men are often treated differently in online discussion. (Quick, name a case in which someone was harassed online. Was the person you thought about a woman? I thought so.)

A few months ago, John Scalzi noted that:

In my experience, talking to women bloggers and writers, they are quite likely to get abusive comments and e-mail, and receive more of it not only than what I get personally (which isn’t difficult) but more than what men bloggers and writers typically get. I think bloggers who focus on certain subjects (politics, sexuality, etc) will get more abusive responses than ones who write primarily on other topics, but even in those fields, women seem more of a target for abusive people than the men are. And even women writing on non-controversial topics get smacked with this crap. I know knitting bloggers who have some amazingly hateful comments directed at them. They’re blogging about knitting, for Christ’s sake. . .

I can contrast this with how people approach me on similar topics. When I post photos of processed cheese, I don’t get abused about how bad it is and how bad I am for posting about it. People don’t abuse me over my weight, even when I talk explicitly about it. I go away from my family for weeks at a time and never get crap about what a bad father that makes me, even though I have always been the stay-at-home parent. Now, it’s true in every case that if I did get crap, I would deal with it harshly, either by going after the commenter or by simply malleting their jackassery into oblivion. But the point is I don’t have to. I’m a man and I largely get a pass on weight, on parenting and (apparently) on exhibition and ingestion of processed cheese products. Or at the very least if someone thinks I’m a bad person for any of these, they keep it to themselves. They do the same for any number of other topics they might feel free to lecture or abuse women over.

It’s this sort of thing that reminds me that the Internet is not the same experience for me as it is for some of my women friends. (Emphasis added.)

That bears repeating: The Internet is not the same experience for men as it is for women. (No wonder women are numerically underrepresented in prominent internet discussion spaces.)

Why is the internet a different place for men than for women? There are doubtless a number of contributing causes, but one of the major factors is that the internet is largely a male-constructed discursive space, and internet discussion norms often build on assumptions of male privilege. Read More

16

Bigoted Harassment, Alive and Well Online

With the help of law and changing norms, invidious discrimination has become less prevalent in arenas like schools, workplaces, hotels, and public transportation.  Due to our social environments, anti-discrimination law is fairly easy to enforce.  Because leaders usually can figure out those responsible for discriminatory conduct and ignore such behavior at their peril, bigotry raises a real risk of social sanction.  So too hate discourse in the public sphere is more muted.  A hundred years ago, Southern newspapers and leaders explicitly endorsed mob violence against blacks.  As late as 1940, a newspaper editor in Durham, North Carolina could state that: “A Negro is different from other people in that he’s an unfortunate branch of the human family who hasn’t been able to make out of himself all he is capable of” due to his “background of the jungle.”  In the post-Civil Rights era, the public expression of bigoted epithets and slurs occurs infrequently.  One rarely hears racist, sexist, or homophobic speech in mainstream media outlets.  Some interpret this state of affairs optimistically, as a sign that we are moving beyond race, gender, and arguably even sexual orientation.  The election of the first black President provoked proclamations of our entry into a “post-racial” era.  Many contend that we no longer need feminism anymore.  Prime time television is filled with images of female power, from Brenda Leigh Johnson’s chief on The Closer to Dr. Miranda Bailey’s “take no prisoners” surgeon on Grey’s Anatomy.  Who needs feminism anymore as its goals have been achieved?

But a new era is not upon us.  In some arenas, hate’s explicit form has repackaged itself in subtlety.  In public discourse, crude biological views of group inferiority are often replaced with a kinder, gentler “color-blind racism,” as sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva calls it. The face of modern racism is, in journalist Touré’s estimation, “invisible or hard to discern, lurking in the shadows or hidden.”  The media has also better disguised sexism with its anxiety about female achievement, renewed and amplified objectification of young women’s bodies and faces, and the dual exploitation and punishment of female sexuality, as media scholar Susan Douglas explains.

Offline public discourse may now be on more neutral ground but its online counterpart is not.  While virulent bigotry continues behind closed doors, it increasingly appears in online spaces that blend public and private discourse.  Although televised sports commentary rarely features anti-gay rhetoric, online sports message boards are awash in in-your-face homophobic speech.  Racial epithets and slurs are common online, whether in Facebook profiles, Twitter posts, blog comments, or YouTube videos.  College students encounter more sexually inappropriate speech in online interactions than in face-to-face ones.

Matters have not improved since I started talking and writing about it since 2007, when we woke up, for a brief second, and paid attention to sexualized, misogynistic attacks on Kathy Sierra on her blog and two others and the targeting of female law students on AutoAdmit.  Then, technologist Tim O’Reilly and Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales called for a Blogger’s Code of Conduct.  That effort failed to gain traction, and ever since the bigoted online abuse continues, silencing victims, ruining their online reputations, costing them jobs, and interfering with their ability to engage with others online and offline.  Newsweek’s always insightful Jessica Bennett has published important new piece on online misogyny and the Guardian’s Vanessa Thorpe and Richard Rogers similarly explore the rape threats and abuse of female bloggers.  I will be blogging about bigoted online harassment, as I am amidst writing a book about it and serving on the Inter-Parliamentary Task Force on Online Hate, which recently held a hearing at the House of Commons.  This all has to stop, and now.