Speaking of Women's Rights: The Next Workplace Struggle

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Next Workplace Struggle

Today the media --- print, electronic, social --- abound with stories about Labor Day: how it started, what it means, is it still relevant, who are today’s workers, the future of the workplace. While most of us treat the holiday as that last day off before the long slog toward winter, this year it behooves us to look a little deeper.

We’ve heard that men have lost more jobs than women in the recession, and given the drastic drop in manufacturing and construction, traditional strongholds for working men, that’s a logical result. But it doesn’t mean women are skating to prosperity. Nor that women are benefiting at the expense of men. Far from it.

Rather, while job loss is happening to all workers, even when they have employment, women continue to experience profound discrimination. Sometimes it’s pay disparity, the same old-same old story. Which is why we hope the U.S. Supreme Court will affirm the decision of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that women employed by Wal-Mart may bring their sex discrimination lawsuit as a class action.

But apart from blatant discrimination, there are other, more insidious forces at work. The demands we make of all workers in this 365/24/7 society, combined with stereotypes about women, compel difficult, often impossible choices. Why is it the last three women nominated for the U.S. Supreme Court were single women without children? What does that say about success?

And how can it be that some of the companies most-lauded as ‘family friendly’ are in fact hotbeds of sex discrimination? Here’s how it can be: we still think parents – especially mothers – can’t function as full workers. Their attention will be diverted, whisper evil little voices. They won’t really do as much work as a non-parent. They will probably quit soon anyway. Nonsense.

Setting aside the fact that most families need two incomes (even when they are single-parent families), these stereotypes are false and damaging. That’s why Legal Voice is proud to represent Norma Maxwell, who was first treated abominably by her employer while she was pregnant (requiring her to apologize to her co-workers for her ‘bad attitude’ and assure them she was happy to be pregnant), and ultimately fired because her employer believed (and stated under oath) that there was “no way Ms. Maxwell could put in four hours of work if she worked from home”. This was notwithstanding the fact that she had worked from home with a child before.

Mothers and fathers who embrace their roles as parents and workers deserve our support. Our society would be far better off if we not only accepted, but admired and respected them.

Ms. Maxwell's trial starts on Tuesday, September 7th. Great timing, I think. Here’s to workers everywhere: Happy Labor Day!