At its core, the #MeToo movement has been about voice—speaking up after generations of silence endured by victims of sexual harassment and bullying in the workplace. That voice can be at its most powerful in the pages of a court complaint, where years of pain and frustration are described in the plaintiffs’ allegations.
A number of lawsuits have been filed by women that allege gender discrimination in their law firm’s compensation and promotion practices. The specific allegations in these suits generally reveal more than examples of disparate pay and a failure to promote. They often provide a glimpse into other negative behaviors that confirm what research has long revealed: sexual harassment and related negative behaviors in the workplace are rooted in discrimination and power imbalances.
Two recent complaints against global law firms are illustrative. The 81-page amended complaint filed on May 21 by seven Jane Doe plaintiffs against Morrison & Foerster detailed the experiences of female associates who allege that their work environment changed dramatically after taking maternity leave in accordance with the firm’s policy. Their claims include compensation discrimination, changes in the quality of assignments, failure to provide work sufficient to meet billable-hour demands, failure to promote, and other examples of disparate treatment relative to their male colleagues.
Beyond the alleged discrimination against women who took maternity leave, the complaint references harassing behaviors that include “objectifying and demeaning comments,” including images of “scantily clad cheerleaders” on the wall of a shared workspace. Moreover, the allegations describe associates continually undermined in their efforts to prove their dedication and commitment to becoming a partner, and describe instances where the plaintiffs were rebuffed when they sought help from partners or professional managers. Some even described Kafkaesque circumstances that women can face when they finally summon the courage to break their silence. Consider the allegations of Jane Doe #6:
“MoFo later installed … Partner 2 as a group head for Jane Doe 6, giving him input into decisions about her salary and promotion, even though she had disclosed to appropriate MoFo personnel … that her prior romantic relationship with Partner 2 had ended after he coerced her into not keeping a wanted pregnancy with him. When she learned that Partner 2 would join the firm, he expressly discouraged her from letting others at MoFo know that [they had] a prior romantic relationship. … Concerns Jane Doe expressed after Partner 2 was appointed as her group head … as well as her requests that Partner 2 recuse himself from her promotion and compensation decisions fell on deaf ears. … A male attorney suggested that it could actually be good for her career if Partner 2 ‘still wanted’ her.”
In April, two named and four Jane Doe female associates filed suit against Jones Day, alleging “systemic discrimination based on gender, pregnancy and maternity.” The allegations paint a picture of deeply embedded gender discrimination that resulted in dramatically changed circumstances for women who became mothers, including sudden shifts in evaluations for those who expressed their concerns about firm policy or their own treatment. Those who spoke up describe being met with retaliation, teaching an important lesson about silence to all observers.
The plaintiffs describe a “fraternity culture” that objectified and disparaged women, illustrating the link between workplace misconduct and gender discrimination that has been found in studies. The plaintiffs allege “sexist, sexualized comments and conduct” and an inhospitable culture that included a partner urging a lawyer to wear high heels, comments about women’s bodies, disparaging statements about women who are mothers, and excessive drinking at firm social events that often led to sexualized behaviors.
History makes clear that it is extraordinarily difficult for victims of harassment and discrimination to speak up, as the risk of retaliation is so great. As studies have demonstrated, a far more common pattern is for women to stay silent in the face of workplace misconduct, fearful that if they speak up, the victim will be marginalized or worse, and the perpetrator will be the one who is protected. In some circumstances, perpetrators move quietly to other firms, where only their location, but not their behavior, changes.
These suits offer a glimpse into alleged punitive and discriminatory behaviors that are at odds with values that the firms may espouse in describing themselves. This dissonance between the lived experiences of some in an organization and the perceptions of its leaders is common. One law firm study found that more than two-thirds of the male respondents said their firm was “doing what it takes to improve gender diversity,” compared to less than half of the female respondents.
As most complaints illustrate, plaintiffs undergo relentless negative experiences before reaching the point where they seek vindication through a lawsuit. The potential damage to their career is incalculable, particularly in a profession where success and reputation are so inextricably tied. Accordingly, it is not surprising that the desire to stay anonymous is paramount, as the plaintiffs seek to keep their careers intact. This has been particularly challenging for the Jones Day associates who have also had to fight the firm’s legal effort to force them to publicly reveal their names.
Beyond providing a glimpse at life behind the law firm door, these and other similar lawsuits offer examples of extraordinary grit and resilience, revealing plaintiffs who overcame their justifiable fear of retaliation, found their voice, and are trying to create a more level playing field for those who follow. Those voices may need to be anonymous for their stories to be told. Hopefully, their stories will be heard by those in a position to create change, whether or not their names are revealed.
Lauren Stiller Rikleen is president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership. She speaks and trains on a wide range of workplace culture issues. She is the author of “The Shield of Silence: How Power Perpetuates a Culture of Harassment and Bullying in the Workplace.”