Women workers in U.S. have bias in common

Discrimination: Lawsuits highlight how little their complaints differ from the boardroom to the stockroom.

July 16, 2004|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

The women workers of Wall Street and Wal-Mart would appear worlds apart: One group shows up in suits from Bergdorf Goodman and takes home a paycheck routinely into six figures; the other clocks in wearing a trademark blue smock and might not clear $30,000 a year.

Their shared experience became apparent this week, however, as securities giant Morgan Stanley agreed to pay $54 million to settle a sex discrimination case. That move came less than a month after a judge ruled a lawsuit against Wal-Mart can proceed as a class action covering about 1.6 million women.

The claims in each case are strikingly similar.

Both groups contend a pattern existed in which women were paid far less than their male counterparts. They also have recounted tales of bad behavior by male co-workers with a startling sameness - in the Wall Street case it included a birthday cake shaped like a breast and trips to strip clubs; in the Wal-Mart case, it was business meetings at a Hooters restaurant and women told to "doll up."

"I was kind of shocked, because I guess I see those as more of your upscale, professional type offices," Melissa Howard, a former Wal-Mart store manager in Indiana involved in the class action case, said of learning about the claims in the Morgan Stanley case. "I think it just happens so much more widely than what people realize."

The ripples of Morgan Stanley's high-profile settlement - the second-largest resolution the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has reached with a company it sued and the first with a major securities firm - could reach workers many rungs below the investment bankers, employment lawyers said.

As a practical matter, it could put pressure on employers facing similar lawsuits to settle, they said. More broadly, it could prompt companies "from Wall Street to Main Street" to scrutinize their employment practices, said David Grinberg, a spokesman with the employment commission.

"We think it will have a major impact in terms of women being more aware of their rights and possibly coming forward in greater numbers, as well as corporations being more aware of what their responsibilities are," Grinberg said.

`One-two punch'

Washington lawyer John P. Relman, who specializes in workplace civil rights litigation, said the Morgan Stanley settlement, coupled with last month's class action certification in the Wal-Mart lawsuit, is a "one-two punch ... that sends a powerful message to employers about gender discrimination issues."

"I don't really see how Wal-Mart could settle now for anything less than billions of dollars," Relman said. In the Morgan Stanley case, he added, "I don't think any employer can look at $54 million and say that's not a wake-up call."

Wal-Mart is appealing the class certification granted by U.S. District Judge Martin J. Jenkins in San Francisco, arguing that it does not discriminate and that decisions about promotions and raises were not made at the corporate level. Asked about implications from the Morgan Stanley settlement, a company spokesman said that "each case will stand on their own merits."

"Both involve high-profile companies and the resulting spotlight is causing other major corporations to make sure they are treating their women employees fairly and with respect," Mona Williams, Wal-Mart's vice president for corporate communications, said in an e-mail. "This is a good thing, and we feel strongly that we stand up well to even the most rigorous scrutiny."

Morgan Stanley did not admit wrongdoing in its settlement, which was reached Monday shortly before the case was scheduled to go to trial in a federal courtroom in Manhattan.

The settlement could cover more than 300 women who had worked in a division of its investment bank and requires the company to spend $2 million on diversity programs overseen by an outside monitor.

It also allowed the company to avoid potentially embarrassing courtroom tales about Wall Street machismo that women at the firm said left them underpaid and underemployed. The lead plaintiff, former bond saleswoman Allison Schieffelin, and 20 other current and former employees were prepared to testify about the breast-shaped cake, workplace stripteases, sexist comments and stops at strip clubs with key clients.

Across the country, women involved in other sexual discrimination lawsuits took note.

Baltimore City case

"I don't know if it's going to directly affect my case, but to bring light to the issue, I'm sure it will help," said Sabrina Bond, 36, of Harford County, who brought a federal lawsuit this year against the Baltimore City Department of Public Works, where she worked almost four years as a carpenter. "Whether it's corporate America, or me being a carpenter, it happens all over - it happens so much more than people realize."

Bond's lawsuit, brought in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, alleged that her male co-workers and supervisors routinely made suggestive sexual comments, exposed their genitalia and once gave her a sex toy at a holiday gift exchange.

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