Gender bias still thrives in some workplaces.
Women are still fighting battles in the workplace, including unequal pay, low numbers in the C-suite, sexual harassment, and, in some cases, even rape and assault. Here are five organizations that have recently been on the wrong end of allegations and legal action by women for gender discrimination and other unfair practices aimed primarily at female employees.
Jaws dropped when KBR was voted number 46 on a list of the best companies for work for by Woman Engineer magazine. The company has been sued several times by female employees alleging sexual assaults and sexual harassment by KBR employees. In addition, the company required employees to sign contracts that took away their constitutional right to bring civil action in the event of sexual assault or other grievance – instead, forcing them to agree to confidential and binding arbitration. That practice is now being scrutinized by the U.S. Senate, which estimates that 30 million Americans have unknowingly signed away their legal rights with similar contracts.
Perhaps the most famous case is Jamie Leigh Jones. After only four days on the job, Jones was drugged and raped by seven U.S. contractors in 2005. Afterward, she was held captive by two KBR guards in a shipping container. She fought for over four years for her day in court as a result of her employee contract (Republican leadership infamously came to the defense of KBR). Her attorney, Todd Kelly, has represented five former KBR employees who have alleged sexual assault or harassment and told ABC News some 40 women have contacted his office about alleged incidents while they were working for KBR.
It began with Betty Dukes. After years of being passed over for promotion, she and five other female employees filed a federal discrimination suit against Walmart in 2001. The women allege there is a centralized culture biased against women in the organization and cite more than 100 specific instances of discrimination. 80 percent of Walmart hourly workers are women, while less than one-third of managers are women. The plantiffs claim that Walmart favors men for higher pay and promotions.
The case has grown into a landmark fight as the women have become representatives for 1.5 million female employees who also claim to have been victims of discriminatory practices at the largest employer in the U.S. Together they are bringing a massive discrimination suit against the retailer.
Arguments reached the U.S. Supreme Court in March 2011, where the justices will determine if the suit can move forward as a class action. Walmart claims these were isolated incidents, not a widespread company attitude against women. If the case remains a class action and the plaintiffs win, it could have a big impact on how employers throughout the country treat female employees in the future. If the Supreme Court dismantles the class action, each woman would be left to fight their own case individually, which is much less expensive for Walmart and a bigger uphill battle for the women. The court’s decision is expected by summer 2011.
In September 2010, Goldman Sachs, home of the 10,000 Women initiative, was sued by three former female employees who allege discrimination in pay and advancement. Bloomberg Businessweek reports that in the complaint, one of the former employees said, “Men at Goldman Sachs are viewed more favorably, receive more compensation, and are more likely to be promoted.” After one former employee reported being kissed and groped by another male employee, she was punished by hostile attitudes and her career suffered. In the meantime, the male colleague she accused was steadily promoted and his compensation increased by more than 400 percent.
There are very few women at the director and partner level, compared to lower levels at the firm, but Goldman Sachs counters by claiming that their numbers are comparable to and even better than many other financial firms. In March 2010, a former vice president at the firm also filed suit claiming bias. After she gave birth and chose to work part-time, she claims that she was pushed onto the “mommy track” and eventually fired.
In May 2010, after a six-week trial, a jury found Novartis guilty of discriminatory practices against women. Twelve women, representing 5,600 women, alleged that women were discriminated against in pay, promotions and pregnancy-related issues.
Kate Kimpel, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told Swissinfo.ch, “Novartis had a corporate culture that expected female sales reps to be ‘available and amenable to sexual advances’ from the doctors they met while marketing drugs. ‘To add insult to injury, Novartis paid those same women less, wouldn’t promote them into management, and punished them if they got pregnant.’”
During the trial, the plaintiffs presented testimony about a district manager who showed female workers pornographic images and invited them to sit in his lap. Novartis’ lawyer Richard Schnadig explained, “He was an embarrassment to the company. He wasn’t that bad a manager. He was just terrible with women.”
U.S. Armed Forces
In February 2011, two men and 15 women, veterans and active-duty service members, filed a federal lawsuit accusing the U.S. Department of Defense of permitting an armed forces culture that does nothing to prevent rape and sexual assault. When crimes are reported, they mishandled the cases, violating the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights. The New York Times reported that the suit specifically names Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, claiming they “ran institutions in which perpetrators were promoted and where military personnel openly mocked and flouted the modest congressionally mandated institutional reforms.” In addition, they failed “to take reasonable steps to prevent plaintiffs from being repeatedly raped, sexually assaulted and sexually harassed by federal military personnel.”
The plaintiffs claim that soldiers that make any sort of complaint in the military are likely to experience retaliation and have nowhere to turn for help. In this oppressive climate, many sexual assaults are not even reported. Even attempts at sexual harassment and assault education were mocked. Plaintiffs related an incident where a soldier stripped naked and danced on the table during a break in a class on the prevention of sexual harassment and assault. Another incident involved two men who raped a woman, videotaped it, and distributed the tape to her colleagues.
In 2005, Congress mandated the creation of a task force on military sexual assault, but by 2008 the Government Accountability Office (GAO), determined that it had spent $15 million but could not substantiate any proven results. In 2009 reported sexual assaults went up 11 percent, according to the Department of Defense, resulting in one third of the women serving in the military reporting having been sexually assaulted. Even the Pentagon admits that these probably only represent about 20 percent of actual incidents. The Daily Beast reports that female recruits “are now far more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed in combat.” Women aren’t the only victims in this case. More than fifty percent of those who are diagnosed with Military Sexual Trauma are men.
The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Susan L. Burke, stated, “You should not have to be subjected to being raped or sexually assaulted because you volunteered to serve this nation.”
We’ve got a long way to go, baby.