Gender Equality at Work Requires More Than Corporate Tokenism

Last month, a Fusion article warned women to beware of “the guy who talks a big game about gender equality… then turns around and harasses you, assaults you, or belittles you,” coining the term, the “woke misogynist.” The same warning can be made about corporate gestures toward gender equality. In an age where feminism is cool, it now takes more scrutiny to discern the genuine from the superficial. Many businesses are relying on their image as hip, progressive organizations to appeal to socially-conscious consumers by making statements about equal pay, donating to the ACLU, or appointing a handful of women to their boards. Yet, so many of these companies continue to foster systemic cultures of sexual disrespect, harassment, and assault.

Sex Discrimination in the Workplace

Multiple accounts of sexual harassment have recently come to light in the tech industry. Susan Fowler’s February blog post revealed the rampant sex discrimination and harassment she faced while an engineer at Uber. She recounted her experience with the HR department, which retaliated against her for making complaints and refused to take action against her “high performing” harasser. She says the number of women in the organization dwindled from 25% to 6% while she was there. Another survivor came forward with her account a few weeks later under the alias Amy Vertino, detailing similar backlash for reporting the sexist behavior of her colleagues. She reports Uber CEO Travis Kalanik “is well known to protect high performing team leaders no matter how abusive they are to their employees.”

Sex discrimination in employment is not unique to Uber. The tech industry averages 21-22% female employees. 60% of women in tech report being sexually harassed in the workplace. The hostile environment both creates barriers for women entering the tech industry and also causes them to leave the field at alarming rates, 45% higher than men. After reading Fowler’s blog, The Observer reached out to women in tech and, within a few hours, had twelve more personal accounts of workplace sexual harassment. Allison Esposito, the founder of Tech Ladies, said they hear similar stories at least once a week. A female engineer recently filed a lawsuit against Tesla for failure to take action against the pervasive harassment. TechCrunch conducted a number of anonymous interviews that further evince the rampant mishandling of sexual harassment complaints in the industry.

Even beyond tech, the core issue is that sexism pervades male-dominated industries. The culture reflects the leadership, and as Rachel Bitte, chief people officer at Jobvite, explains, “tech is the newest industry to see male dominance in leadership roles, but we saw the same sort of problems that resulted in lawsuits decades ago in industries such as manufacturing or mining.”

The financial industry is also struggling to increase diversity and address discrimination. 25% of companies on the Russell 3000 index have no women on their boards. According to an SEC report of Fortune 500 companies, women and minorities held 30.8% of corporate board seats in 2016, which the Alliance for Board Diversity criticized as not moving fast enough. Increasing board diversity requires planning, they counseled, given that the board is often a reflection of the lack of diversity in the rest of the company.

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The Current State of Overtime

The New Rule

In May 2016, the Department of Labor, under the direction of President Obama, issued a final rule updating the overtime provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act.  The Department raised the minimum annual salary for employees exempt from overtime pay from $23,660 to $47,476.  The Department set December 1, 2016 as the effective date for the new rule, implementation of which would have affected over 4 million employees.

Underlying the new overtime rule is the desire to protect workers from being over-worked and under-paid.  As the United Food and Commercial Workers union stated in 2015, the previous threshold of $23,660 is below the poverty line, and reflects only one salary threshold increase since 1975.  As long as employers could classify their workers as “managers,” they could avoid paying them overtime.  The new rule would have required employers to either raise the salaries of low-level managers to meet the $47,476 threshold, or reclassify them as hourly employees entitled to overtime pay.  It was intended to encourage employers to spread employment, and hire multiple workers to perform a job rather than forcing a single worker to work 70 hours a week.  Critics argue the rule would hurt small businesses and reduce jobs.

As many employers were making changes to come into compliance with the new rule by the approaching December 1 deadline, a federal judge in Texas ordered a preliminary injunction barring nationwide enforcement of the rule.  A number of private business groups and 21 states had challenged the rule as an overreach of executive power.  The district judge agreed, claiming Congress, not the Department of Labor, should be responsible for making changes to the minimum salary requirement.

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Abortion Restrictions as Forced Labor in the Age of Trump

The new administration has made no secret of its intent to dismantle remaining protections for reproductive rights.  Despite the fact that 79 percent of Americans think abortion should be legal in at least some circumstances, President Trump and Vice President Pence have both made statements indicating their desire to overturn Roe v. Wade, and Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch is likely to be hostile to reproductive rights.  The administration has also made moves to defund Planned Parenthood via the global gag rule, entrench the Hyde amendment, and repeal the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act.  A drastic anti-choice bill was introduced in Congress that would ban abortion after six weeks, a point at which many people do not even know they are pregnant.

These attempts to constrict reproductive choice are not only an affront to the basic principles of liberty and privacy that underlie this country’s abortion jurisprudence, but also a threat to the labor rights of anyone capable of becoming pregnant.  Should the new administration’s assault on reproductive rights come to fruition, many of those capable of becoming pregnant will be coerced into pregnancy and parenthood—a kind of labor they did not choose.  These burdens will be placed most severely on low-income women and women of color who cannot afford to access reproductive services.  Cuts to funding and services will further negatively impact trans men, who already face ignorance and discrimination when trying to access reproductive healthcare.

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