A few weeks ago, Jack Welch let loose with his view that women, to make it to the top of the corporate food chain, must let work consume their lives and to forget work-life balance — as in, don’t even think about it. (Want more detail? Check out the July 16 piece by Debra Cassens Weiss on www.abajournal.com titled “Jack Welch: Women Take Time Off for Kids at Their Peril.”) Some likely think that’s very Gordon Gekko of Welch, but it raises an important question: How far have women come in the workplace, legally and culturally — not in theory, but in reality?
First, work culture. Consider “Backlash: Women Bullying Women at Work,”a May 10 piece in The New York Times by Mickey Meese. It says men bully men and women on an equal basis, but women target other women for bullying more than 70 percent of the time. Why? Meese’s article says women bullying other women may stem from the belief that, to succeed, a woman must be aggressive and thus act against a perceived gender stereotype of the nurturer, not the leader.
Maybe, but evolutionary biology suggests a different reason. “In the Company of Women: Why We Hurt Each Other and How to Stop” by Pat Heim, Susan Murphy and Susan K. Golant posit this big idea: The female imperative, from ancient times, is ensuring offspring survival. A female who is not a team player, who thinks of herself as better than the group, endangers the offspring, so the group isolates her and tosses her aside.
The book argues that 21st-century females are still wired that way, carrying these imprinted beliefs into the modern work force. So, when a fellow female gets a promotion and acts superior to the group, the ancient wiring fires up and prompts other females to bully and undermine her authority in an attempt to topple the queen bee. The authors assert that’s why when a woman gets promoted she often pooh-poohs it: “It’s not really that much more money,” etc. It is her survival wiring kicking in; she knows that to do otherwise imperils her. Shakespeare was right: We are motivated by things we are dimly aware of and barely understand.
Yet none of us, male or female, need be hostages. Knowing the whys of our behavior empowers us to manage our reptile brain and to change what we do and how we do it. That’s the kernel of liberating wisdom in a January Harvard Business Review article, “Women and the Vision Thing” by Herminia Ibarra and Otilia Obodaru. Their research points to this: Colleagues, superiors and subordinates consider women to lack vision, defined as the ability to spot overarching issues, make big-picture decisions and inspire others to transcend their limitations.
Why is this so? Here is their analysis:
• For men, vision is a one-riot-one-ranger idea, with the leader as hero in his own story. Women, by contrast, get input from many in developing a vision — more inclusive, less macho. Women have vision, just not what most people think of as vision.
• Women want facts before going — as the “Star Trek” voice-over intones — where no one has gone before (my metaphor, not theirs), while men just go, extrapolating from a few facts and figures. Vision is perceived as an action-based value, not a fact-finding one.
• Women don’t put much stock in vision. “If you want something said, ask a man; if you want anything done, ask a woman.” That’s the Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher. Because women are more focused on the doing, and less on the yapping, the authors conclude they get a bum-rap on the vision thing.
Solutions? Here is their tough-love advice: “The challenge facing women, then, is to stop dismissing the vision thing and make vision one of the things they are known for. It’s a set of competencies that can be developed. And, of all the leadership dimensions we measured, it’s the only thing holding women back.” That’s direct. But, the great execs never cha-cha around the truth. Maggie would have understood.
What about the law? Here, to its great credit, the law arcs beyond wiring, outpaces biology and places individuals over stereotypes. Let’s look at status: one, the intention to become a mother; two, actually becoming one.
Here is the first: Batchelor v. Merck & Co. Inc. , a 2009 decision from the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana. The court sketches out the facts. An employee announces to her supervisors her intention to start a family. She is later fired and sues for a violation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA). The employer argues that the intention to become pregnant is not protected by the PDA and even if it is, the intention to start a family could include adoption, not pregnancy. The court took a different view: The PDA protects even those women who only contemplate pregnancy, and most families are started with a pregnancy, not an adoption. So, motion for summary judgment denied. Guess our parents were wrong — someone can be just a little bit pregnant.
While stereotypes still prevail in the work world, the courts are policing stereotypical decision-making. Look at this year’s decision by the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chadwick v. Wellpoint Inc., et al . Laurie Chadwick, the mother of an 11-year-old and 6-year-old triplets, got aced out of a promotion by another employee, who also is a mom but of older children. When Chadwick asked the employer why she didn’t get the job, a decision-maker allegedly responded that it was nothing she did or didn’t do, it was just that she was going to school, she had the kids and she just had a lot on her plate at the time.
The 1st Circuit reversed the trial court’s summary judgment saying, “[T]he essence of employment discrimination is penalizing a worker not for something she did, but for something she simply is.” The employer argued that a woman with children did get the job. But the court shot that argument down, noting that Chadwick was not complaining about being a mother with children, but rather a mother with young children, and that her employer made an employment decision based upon a stereotypical mind-set of whether her status would interfere with her ability to perform the job. So, there you have it: discrimination by mother-of-young-children stereotype.
Speaking of stereotypes, check out “Women of Color in U.S. Law Firms,” a study released last month by Catalyst Inc. that focuses on “intersectionality,” gender coupled with race or ethnicity. The conclusions of its report are troubling: Women of color are the most likely to perceive that others felt uncomfortable around them and that they had limited access and support from informal networks; they are the least likely to believe diversity practices are effective. The unsettling result from women of color: Where is the exit? They leave firms in disproportionate numbers. The study runs 61 pages. It’s worth a read.
Someday, things really will change. They truly will be different. Welch is the past, not the future. Someday, everyone will understand that balanced lives are better lives and better lives lead to better employees, at all levels. Someday, we — each of us — will be seen and valued as individuals, fulfilling the original intent behind our civil rights laws. “Men, their rights and nothing more; women, their rights and nothing less.” That is Susan B. Anthony. Someday, her goal will be realized, but, sadly, not quite yet.
Michael P. Maslanka is the managing partner of Ford & Harrison’s Dallas office. He is board certified in labor and employment law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, and he writes the Texas Employment Law Letter. His “Work Matters” blog and podcasts can be found at www.texaslawyer.com. He is on Twitter at www.twitter.com/worklawyer. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.