Ramit Mizrahi was honored to speak at the UN Women-L.A. Chapter’s HeForShe event on Sunday, August 23, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. Below are her remarks.
Equality in Work
We are fortunate to live in a society where sex discrimination in employment has been unlawful for over 50 years. Yet we still have a long way to go.
Gender Pay Gap
Consider the gender pay gap. According to research by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, in 2014, women working full-time were earning 82% of what their male peers were earning. Breaking it down further, the wage gap for black and Latina women is even greater, with black women earning 68% and Latina women only 61% of what men do.
One third of working mothers are single mothers, and a staggering 30% of them live in poverty. It is estimated that closing the gender pay gap would pull half of those families.
Yet, in the past decade, the gender pay gap has narrowed by just 1.5%.
Workplace discrimination and inequality persist in many forms.
Decades ago, workers were regularly subjected to overt discrimination. It was perfectly normal to have Help Wanted sections in the newspaper divided by jobs for men and women. Sexual harassment of female employees was common.
The most egregious forms of sex discrimination, harassment, and abuse still happen to the most vulnerable populations among us. For example, undocumented female agricultural workers are easily preyed upon. Predators know that they are afraid of being deported, have language barriers, lack familiarity with their rights, and are sometimes socially isolated. You also see the more egregious conduct in certain male dominated environments, where some men use sex harassment and abuse as tools to try to drive women out.
In other settings, however, sex discrimination and mistreatment are often less overt. Most employers and managers have learned not to explicitly state that they don’t want to hire or promote women or that they fear that women of childbearing age will take time off to have babies.
But the patterns persist. Sometimes the conduct is intentional. But other times, disparities are not due to any individual’s conscious choice to discriminate but a number of factors that are at play. For example:
Sex segregation. There are many fields that are deeply sex segregated (for example, nursing or construction). This is called horizontal segregation. The research shows that regardless of qualifications, jobs predominantly done by women pay less on average than jobs predominantly done by men.
There is also what is called vertical segregation (the glass ceiling), where men tend to be more likely to hold positions of authority.
Consider statistics taken from the Dukes v. Walmart case, which stood to be the nation’s largest employment class action until the Supreme Court determined that the case could not proceed as a class action. I had a chance to play a small role in working on the case back in 2004 when I first graduated from law school.
Walmart is the nation’s largest private employer. Back in the early 2000s, women made up about 2/3 of Walmart’s hourly workers, yet were only 10% of district and regional managers. Women dropped in representation along every level of promotion. In addition, women at Walmart earned less than men in the same job in nearly every role. In 2001, female hourly workers earned $1,100 a year less than their male equals. Women in management made about $14,500 less per year. A big part of the problem was that Walmart lacked clear objective criteria for compensation and promotions, which allowed managers to fall back on their biases and assumptions.
Caregiving obligations. Another significant problem is women’s disproportionate caregiving obligations, actual and perceived. Mothers fall behind both men and child-free women. Mothers suffer in the following ways: they lose valuable experience when they’re off work; they may be considered less productive when they work fewer hours in a culture where people work extremely long hours and technology blurs the line between work and home; they may leave higher-paying jobs for ones that they consider family-friendly; and, significantly, they may face discrimination from employers who see them as less capable or committed to their jobs.
There are legal protections for those who are caregivers. In California, employers with five or more employees must allow an employee up to four months of job-protected pregnancy disability leave. Qualified employees of larger companies entitled to an additional twelve weeks of family leave to bond with their babies or care for family members with serious medical conditions. Both men and women are covered. In addition, both pregnancy disability leave and up to six weeks of family leave are partially paid through the state.
But what do we see happen? Most people—and men in particular—are not taking their full leave time.
There are four main reasons:
- The leave they seek is not job protected (not a large enough employer, they don’t meet eligibility requirements, etc.);
- They lack knowledge about their rights;
- They can’t financially afford to take the time off;
- They are afraid of retaliation, especially men.
If we as a society truly value care work and seek gender equality in the workplace, we must confront each of these barriers.
Reflections on my Practice
I see all sorts of cases involving gender discrimination, including disparate treatment, sexual harassment, pregnancy discrimination, and violations of leave law rights.
There are limitations as to what I can do. Usually, by the time someone contacts me, the harm has already been done. They’ve been terminated, harassed, or otherwise mistreated, they believe for unlawful reasons.
I end up taking on the most egregious of cases—where the evidence is strong, the numbers are stark, where there is a smoking gun or a set of circumstances that are damning. For example, when an employee who is entitled to four months of pregnancy disability leave is not reinstated to her position, even though that is what the law requires, or when an employee complains about harassment and is then retaliated against by the harasser, who is angry that she reported him.
My clients are usually devastated. Though their families are counting on their incomes, their jobs are more than just a paycheck; they are a source of identity and pride. And I am grateful to be able to help get them back on their feet and to help them recover their sense of self-worth.
Unfortunately, there is little I can do when the bias is subtle or unconscious. Given the risks that come with litigation, and the fact that you must convince a jury that the alleged behavior is more likely than not true, you have to have the evidence. And when bias is subconscious, it is extremely difficult to establish its existence.
Consider a 2012 study published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences). In that study, the researches created a fictitious résumé for what appeared to be an applicant for a lab manager position. They then turned it into two versions, one with the name at the top identified as Jennifer and one identified as John. Over one hundred professors from research universities across the country were asked to rate the applicant, randomly receiving either the one that said Jennifer or the one that said John.
Although the two résumés were identical but for the names, the male student was rated far more competent, more hireable, and more deserving of faculty mentorship. In addition, the mean salary recommended for Jennifer was nearly $4,000, or 13%, lower than for John. Note that the gender of the reviewing faculty did not affect the bias. You can see how these biases would, cumulatively, hold a woman back as compared to her male peers.
As this study (and there are many more like it) shows, stereotypes and implicit biases shape perceptions and evaluations of women’s competence, likability, qualifications, even the salary they deserve. This, in turn, affects how people behave toward women.
What Can You Do?
1. Work at a place where you know you’re more likely to be valued and to have an opportunity to advance.
Look for a company where women hold positions of leadership. Look for one that is committed to men and women being both workers and caretakers. You can tell by whether it is culturally acceptable for men to take parental leaves, and whether they do. Many of us will have children. We will all, hopefully, see our parents grow old. We will have spouses, siblings, grandparents, and other loved ones who as some point in their lives will need our care. Find employers that recognize and accept that.
2. Find a mentor and a champion.
You’ll be more likely to succeed if you have someone working toward your success.
3. Find the right partner—and be the right partner.
It goes without saying that you’re more likely to have an egalitarian relationship if you and your partner are committed to one. Discuss how you will share in caretaking early on, certainly before having children.
4. Figure out how to best walk the line.
We all adapt ourselves to our environment, sometimes consciously, sometimes not. Educate yourself on the gendered differences in behavior and make strategic decisions. Even the most self-aware among us can catch ourselves engaging in certain behaviors that reinforce gender stereotypes and undermine our success.
5. Accept responsibility that your actions influence culture.
This is especially true as you gain authority in a company or organization. Your reports will look to you and follow your example. Men, in particular: take family leave to set an example.
6. Support legislation that enables and incentivizes companies and workers to honor family commitments as well as workplace ones.
For example, while California provides for pregnancy disability leave and up to six weeks of paid family leave for men and women, there is more than can be done. We can increase the amount of wage replacement for paid family leave so that people can afford to take it, or expand coverage for job-protected family leave.
7. Work to fight unconscious bias.
Awareness is one of the best tools to fight unconscious bias. Even becoming aware of the research on unconscious bias and engaging in dialogue about how best to prevent it can bring about positive change in an organization.
In addition, using objective criteria and putting systems in place can help ensure that biases don’t infect hiring, promotions, and compensation decisions.
There is much that can be done to bring about greater gender equality in the workplace!
- Why So Slow? by Virginia Valian. (Focusing on why so few women occupy positions of authority. The book is 17 years old now, but it reads like it could have been written yesterday.)
- What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know, by Joan Williams and Rachel Dempsey.
- Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, by Sheryl Sandberg.
- Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office: 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers, by Lois P. Frankel. (While the book focuses only on individual changes you can make yourself, I think we may all find something in it to which we can relate.)
- Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, by Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald.
- Project Implicit.
- CELA Voice Blog Post: Fifty years after sex discrimination became illegal, the focus is still on how women behave instead of changing organizations to eliminate gender bias.
- CELA Voice Blog Post: Organizations have the power to reduce unconscious bias.