The Limits of Anti-Discrimination Law

Joanna Grossman’s Nine to Five is a masterfully assembled set of commentary on sex discrimination cases. Joanna’s deft explanations and critiques of doctrine would make it great for the classroom, sort of like a volume from the “Law Stories” series but with a lot more law. Bringing the commentaries together also allows the collection to highlight some limits of discrimination law as it is now constituted. Nancy Dowd has already raised the challenge of intersectionality; another classic constraint in discrimination law is that equality can be achieved either by leveling up or by leveling down. On the issue of accommodating family responsibilities, for example, American law’s narrow conception of equality has a hard time justifying a level-up, despite the extensive body of feminist scholarship on the gendered nature of the neoliberal marketplace and its “ideal worker.” (See chapter 35, on Young v. UPS.) The demands of “the market” serve as conversation-stoppers in discrimination law, which is understood as regulation of the market, even though aspirations for sex equality include non-market goals. In light of emerging movements demanding that markets serve people instead of the other way around, the next phase in the development of discrimination law will be defined by whether it can move past the ideology of the market.

As I read through Nine to Five—especially the chapters on accommodating pregnancy, work/life balance, and the masculinity of the ideal worker—I kept coming back to the title. Joanna uses the movie 9 to 5 as a jumping off point for talking about gender in the workplace. I have long been curious about the phrase “9 to 5” and its relationship to the labor movement’s hard-won eight-hour workday. “9 to 5” has at times been a pejorative term for a corporate drone, but today it carries the aspirational tone of the past—the wish for a work day that really ends at 5, an office job that stays at the office.

An early expression of the demand for the eight-hour workday came from Robert Owen, who proposed an even division of the day: “8 hours labour, 8 hours recreation, 8 hours rest.” Today, we refer to the eight-hour workday as standard. After all, the Fair Labor Standards Act requires overtime for hourly workers above forty hours a week, and the archetypal, salaried office worker is “on the job from 9 to 5.”

Except that almost nobody is actually on the job from 9 to 5. I discovered this for myself when I started my first office job, working for the federal government. As Joanna discusses (chapter 54), the federal government is the nation’s largest employer and is therefore not only the enforcer of laws but also a standard-setter in practice. With Dolly Parton echoing in the back of my naïve mind, I learned that as a salaried employee I was expected to work a minimum of eight hours per day, with a half-hour unpaid lunch break, a 15-minute unpaid break in the morning, and a 15-minute unpaid break in the afternoon. My workday could be 8 to 5, 8:30 to 5:30, or 9 to 6, but definitely not 9 to 5. Today, the vast majority of office workers work the federal day or longer. Workers subject to FLSA rules not only get their breaks unpaid but have had to go to court over whether hours spent donning protective gear or descending into coal mines are part of their work day.

From the employer’s perspective, of course, it isn’t eight hours of work if the employee disappears for an hour at lunch. What is notable, however, is that law and culture adopted the employer’s perspective and thereby shifted from the “eight-hour work day” to “eight hours of work.” When eight hours is understood not as the portion of one’s life to be devoted to employment but as the quantity of production to which the employer is entitled, the “work day” expands, stealing time from recreation and rest because the work day has been excused from recognizing the humanity of the worker.

The work day could, instead, be “one-third of the day of a human being,” who will necessarily have to deal with some aspects of her humanity during that period. After all, no one is getting any reimbursement or comp time for having to spend some of their “8 hours for recreation” on eating or going to the bathroom, nor do we get to come in late for work when our “8 hours for rest” are interrupted by any number of human realities. “Eight hours of work” instead of an “eight-hour work day” converts time, a human experience, into a commodity defined by its alienation.

This same shift from human-centered goals to market-centered rules, which ultimately place the values of the market above all else, operates in the difficult corners of discrimination law. For example, Nine to Five tackles several problems that arise in the context of school-affiliated sports: pay disparities between the coaches of boys’ and girls’ teams (chapter 3); unequal treatment of the teams themselves (chapter 9); and the toxic masculinity of sports culture, which bleeds into politics, business, and education (chapters 55 and 56). One reason discrimination law often fails to advance equality in these contexts is that it allows market ideology to trump not only non-discrimination principles but also the purported values of sports and educational institutions themselves.

In the case of coaches’ salaries, Joanna dissects the “market defense” that the EEOC has made available to schools: to justify discriminatory salaries, a school need only refute that coaching its girls’ team requires as much skill, effort, or responsibility as coaching its boys’ team. Schools routinely argue that male coaches are responsible for more money and more media management, and that male coaches arrive at the school with higher prior salaries and more experience coaching and playing sports. (p. 20) Joanna points out that these factors allow the school to “buil[d] on past discrimination against female coaches” and that the school itself creates the expectation that boys’ teams will play for higher stakes in both prestige and money. Here, not only the logic of the market but also the explicit sexism of the market is invoked to constrain discrimination law, even when the market defense is offered by non-profit institutions who claim that they sponsor athletic contests not to make money but to support “the higher education mission” and create “an inclusive culture” with “career opportunities for coaches and administrators from diverse backgrounds.”

Players from the U.S. women’s national soccer team (of which Joanna is clearly a fan!) have filed a pay equity suit that will raise these issues, albeit without a school affiliation: the soccer federation’s main defense is that the women’s game doesn’t make as much money as the men’s because it isn’t as popular with fans. There are factual questions about whether this is true and the extent to which, if true, it is the result rather than the cause of discrimination. But a larger question is whether that should matter. Assuming the market defense to be factually true, it should not end the conversation but begin it. Joanna demonstrates how this conversation should proceed in a different context: Discussing employer liability for “sudden, severe [sexual] harassment” (chapter 25), she notes that, sometimes, severe harassment will occur that no reporting system could have prevented. The question, then, is who should bear that cost? Nothing in the logic of sex discrimination law, or greater aspirations for an equal and just society, suggests that the victim rather than the employer should bear 100% of the cost. Similarly, it is not written in stone that women rather than soccer federations should bear the costs of sexist sports culture.

Other workplaces have their own versions of this market defense. In academia, it is a commonplace at many institutions that the only way to increase one’s salary is to get a job offer elsewhere. It is also a commonplace that this is a terrible policy and that it has a disproportionately negative impact on women. It persists because of the market defense.

In public debates about the gender wage gap, various factions talk past each other about whether the gap reflects “real discrimination” or “women’s choices,” which include things like taking “time off” for children or subordinating one’s own career to a spouse’s. This dichotomy is largely beside the point. Some portion of the wage gap is due to flat-out pay discrimination; some is due to discrimination in hiring; some to discrimination in the “pipeline”; some to job segregation that is linked to historical pay inequities between men’s work and women’s work; and some is due to women continuing to perform the bulk of unpaid family labor (details in chapter 51). Why does any of those things justify a skewed distribution of economic security and wealth? The market defense, writ large, puts artificial limits on aspirations for equality.

Speaking of family labor: Readers of this symposium were likely amused by Robert Owen’s facile division of the day into “8 hours labour, 8 hours recreation, 8 hours rest.” When, pray tell, was dinner to be cooked, the house cleaned, and the children’s noses wiped? Those tasks, in Owens’s mind, presumably belonged in someone else’s work day, but today we know them as the second shift, performed by people who “talk about sleep the way a hungry person talks about food.” It’s time to revisit not just minimum wages but maximum hours so we can earn our bread and bake it too, and still have time to tend our roses.

 

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