New Lawsuit for Parental Leave: Forcing Change

In a recent article, I wrote about class-action settlements won by fathers against a handful of large companies that have brought about change. While only a minority of companies offer paid parental leave, a new federal lawsuit filed against Jones Day, one of the nation’s largest law firms, promises more change. This new lawsuit, filed by a couple previously employed at Jones Day, charges discrimination against fathers in parental leave policies, along with other gender-based discrimination. Noam Scheiber of the New York Times writes that this lawsuit joins another suit filed against Jones Day earlier this year by six female lawyers for gender and pregnancy discrimination. Scheiber explains all the charges in the complaint filed by the couple Julia Sheketoff and Mark C. Savignac:

  • The firm unlawfully denied Savignac the full leave he was entitled to.
  • The firm’s policy gives biological mothers eighteen weeks of leave but gives fathers only ten weeks. The plaintiffs submit that this policy “enables [fathers] to prioritize their careers over childcare.” They go on to state that this policy “reflects and reinforces archaic gender roles and sex-based stereotypes.”
  • The firm unlawfully fired Savignac when he complained about the unfair policy. He was, in fact, on approved parental leave when the firm emailed to say he was fired.
  • The couple also contends that the firm paid Sheketoff less than a man because of her gender. She was given a smaller raise in 2017 after a male partner scolded her in her evaluation for being insufficiently deferential to him. This same partner did not scold male associates who failed to defer to him.

The class-action suit filed by the six female lawyers in the firm charges that women who give birth face obstacles to advancement in the firm, and those who have a second child are often fired within a few months of returning to work.

We have made some progress in the United States with offering working women paid parental leave. Some men also have paid leave but usually very little. But clearly, many organizations are still operating in the dark ages of gender discrimination. And most workers do not have access to any paid parental leave at all. We have a long way to go. Let’s hope that the lawsuits keep coming to force much-needed change.


Photo by Dan Burton on Unsplash

Fathers Want Parental Leave Too

As a coach and consultant, I have known many men in organizations over the years who wanted to take extended parental leave when their children were born but were discouraged from doing so. They saw the careers of their male colleagues who took parental leave derailed. They heard these colleagues discussed as “not committed to the company” and were afraid to ask for leave. Yet Noam Scheiber of the New York Times reminds us that, as Ruth Bader Ginsberg noted in the 1970s when she founded the Women’s Rights Project for the ACLU, women will “not achieve equality in the workplace as long as men [are] discouraged from taking on caregiver roles.”

Recent class-action settlements won by fathers against JPMorgan Chase and Estée Lauder are forcing changes in paid parental leave policies, which previously placed the burden of childrearing on the mother. Before the new class-action suits started to put pressure on company policies, many large organizations had discriminatory policies in place:

  • In the case of JPMorgan Chase, mothers were eligible for sixteen weeks of paid parental leave while fathers were offered only two weeks as secondary caregivers.
  • Estée Lauder had a similar policy that discriminated against the fathers of newborns.
  • In 2015, CNN was sued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for granting biological fathers only two weeks of paid parental leave compared to ten weeks for mothers.

A small number of companies offer long leaves to all new parents. Scheiber notes that “Hewlett Packard Enterprise recently announced that new mothers and fathers would both receive at least six months of paid leave.” Six months is unusually long in the United States. Only a minority of companies offer paid parental leave at all. In a 2018 survey by the Society of Human Resource Managers, 35 percent of respondents offered paid maternity leave, usually for a maximum of six weeks, and just under 30 percent offered paid paternity leave. In addition, only salaried workers have access to any paid parental leave. Low wage and contract workers do not have access to these benefits at all.

While the numbers of companies offering paid parental leave have been rising rapidly in recent years, many men are still reluctant to take advantage of these policies when they do become available because they fear negative repercussions. They need to hear positive stores from other men and encouragement from managers to utilize these policies.

Class-action lawsuits and multimillion-dollar settlements are a great way force change. We are moving in the right direction to support gender-neutral family policies. This is good news for all of us.


Photo by César Abner Martínez Aguilar on Unsplash

How Class-action Lawsuits against Silicon Valley Can Benefit All of Us

Anita Hill, an attorney and professor at Brandeis University, is one of my heroines. She had the courage in the early 1990s to accuse her ex-boss Clarence Thomas of inappropriate sexual behavior toward her when he was her supervisor. When she learned that he was nominated for a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court, she felt she had to testify to his lack of moral character during his confirmation hearings. She came forward and spoke the truth of her experience. While she was not able to stop his confirmation, she did give a voice and a name to the abusive behavior that women have always been subjected to by powerful men—sexual harassment. Her testimony opened a door for women to work together with male allies to make the workplace safer and more inclusive for all women. Recently, Professor Hill weighed in on the revelations from Silicon Valley about gender discrimination and harassment in the technology industry. She suggests that the industry will benefit from the interventions into sexism experienced by Wall Street in the 1990s—massively expensive and successful class-action lawsuits that brought about industrywide change. Hill notes that “while pay and promotion discrimination still exists [at Wall Street firms], more women on Wall Street are advancing in their careers to managing directorships and other leadership roles.” Hill points out that the letter released by a young male Google employee that claimed biological differences make women poorly suited to engineering revealed deep-seated sexist attitudes mirrored by recent incidents at Uber and other technology organizations. When a former female Uber employee wrote a blog about her experiences with Uber’s toxic, male-dominated culture, other female coders and engineers came forward with allegations of sexism at Google, Tesla, Twitter, Microsoft, and Oracle, to name a few. Hill cites the following statistics as further evidence of widespread gender discrimination in the tech industry:

  • Women under twenty-five earn, on average, 29 percent less than their male counterparts.
  • For the same job at the same company, women of all ages receive lower salary offers than men 63 percent of the time.
  • Women hold only 11 percent of executive positions at Silicon Valley companies.
  • Women own only 5 percent of tech start-ups.
  • Only 7 percent of partners at the top one hundred venture capital firms are women.
  • Women quit tech jobs at more than twice the rate of men.
According to Hill, while some tech companies have given lip service to improving conditions for women, there is not much genuine action other than offering diversity training, which has limited impact without systemic efforts to change the company culture. For example, in response to a suit alleging wage discrimination against women, Google lawyers said in May that it would be too burdensome for the company to collect data on salaries. In other words, they are not serious about eliminating gender discrimination. Hill suggests that “women in the industry should collectively consider class-action discrimination cases against employers.” She notes that the existence of confidentiality clauses and arbitration agreements, put into place after the 1990s to preempt class-action suits, do not mean that suits cannot be brought. Now that women in technology are speaking out and refusing to be silenced, they can band together and file suits to bring change to the technology industry. It won’t happen otherwise. It’s in everyone’s best interests that women in technology file lawsuits. As Hill notes, “The economic benefits could be remarkable. Advancing women’s equality, which includes minimizing the gender gap in labor force participation, holds the potential to add $12 trillion to global G.D.P. by 2025.” Let’s encourage women to step forward.   Photo in the public domain courtesy of StartupStockPhotos.]]>

How We Can Stop Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Women, for the most part, just want sexual harassment to stop when it happens. But, as Claire Cain Miller of the New York Times reports, women (and it is mostly women who are harassed) rarely report sexual harassment for good reasons: fear of retaliation that can take the form of hostility from supervisors, bad references, or loss of opportunity when labeled as a “troublemaker.”  This is not a small problem for women.  Miller reports that an analysis of fifty-five surveys shows that close to 50 percent of women have experienced sexual harassment, but only one-fourth to one-third of people who have been harassed report it to a supervisor or a union representative.  Only 2 percent to 13 percent file a formal complaint. Miller notes that official harassment policies and grievance procedures are often designed primarily to protect the organization from lawsuits—not to protect the employees.  Susan Fowler, a former Uber employee, and Ellen Pao, a former partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, are both at the center of high profile cases where women who reported sexual harassment were not protected by their companies. Noam Scheiber of the New York Times also explains that anonymous hotlines are ineffective, another example of how grievance procedures that should protect employees do not.  Scheiber describes several instances where anonymous hotlines were actually used to suppress allegations of sexual harassment rather than dealing with them.  These hotlines often exist in obscurity to insulate the organization from legal liability, and employees never know they exist. This was found to be the case at Fox News when the O’Reilly case recently came to light. Claire Cain Miller points out that it is not policies, HR departments or training sessions that prevent sexual harassment—it is an organizational culture where, top down, sexual harassment is really not tolerated.  Miller offers some steps that organizations can take, drawn from recommendations by commissions and researchers, to ensure that employees are protected and can safely report sexual harassment:

  • Authorize dozens of employees throughout the organization to receive complaints
  • Hire an ombudsman
  • Promote more women to positions of power
  • Train people in how to be civil and how to speak up as bystanders—and be sure that senior managers attend the trainings
  • Put in proportional consequences for offenses so that low-grade instances can be handled with conversations rather than firing
Bryce Covert adds that we are all losing when sexual harassment is hidden and does not come to light.  For this reason, he adds this additional recommendation to the list of changes needed to prevent and stop sexual harassment:
  • Eliminate arbitration clauses in contracts, which almost always favor employers, and eliminate nondisclosure agreements when settlements are made
Sexual harassment will continue to be pervasive unless organizations start to really care about protecting their employees.  We must all continue to speak out in whatever forums we have available to us to insist on workplaces that are free of sexual harassment and other demeaning behavior.   Photo courtesy of Tony Webster. CC by-sa 2.0]]>