Author: Jennifer Hendricks


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.



Cookies and the Affordable Care Act

No, this is not a post about how the government is going to force you to buy cookies, even if that would be better than broccoli. It’s about how I came to realize that the minimum coverage provision is doomed: because one of the first things I learned as a litigator was that judges like to give a cookie to each side.

Until last week, I thought the individual mandate stood a chance of being upheld. Specifically, I thought that Justice Scalia might have enough intellectual honesty to stick to the logic of his Raich concurrence and vote to uphold the law.

But last week, the liberal blogosphere started lighting up with dire warnings about the ACA’s expansion of Medicaid, which is on the chopping block tomorrow. “You think the argument against the mandate is radical,” they intoned, “but look at this threat to the spending power.” This Supreme Court is so radical, the argument runs, that it is poised to declare the modern administrative state unconstitutional, in the absence of any split in the lower courts or even any plausible argument based on precedent.

That’s when I realized that Medicaid is the cookie for the left, and the only reason for the cert. grant on that issue was to make the Court look moderate when it strikes down the rest of the ACA. Of course, it only takes four to grant cert. But the Cookie Principle is also useful when four are trying to win over a fifth Liberals ought to stop raising the hue and cry that will make the Court seem restrained when it “only” strikes down minimum coverage.


Activity, Inactivity, Dawn, and Dusk

In today’s argument, Justice Kennedy seemed interested in the ACA challenger’s argument that the minimum coverage rule uniquely requires individuals to venture out into commerce, rather than pegging the law to some supposed pre-existing participation in commerce.

The activity/inactivity distinction is, of course, intellectually incoherent. Every first-year Torts students ought to learn to run circles around that sort of dichotomy. The reason they learn to do so, however, is that such distinctions and their incoherence make up the bread and butter of lawyering – all sorts of intellectually incoherent distinctions are nonetheless legally important. The existence of dawn and dusk does not negate the distinction between night and day.

The question, then, is how to figure out when such a distinction deserves to become a legal rule. The answer, I think, lies in the method of the common law. The reason that the activity/inactivity distinction doesn’t work is that it was invented to go after a particular law, rather than developing organically out of any underlying feature of commerce clause jurisprudence.


Who is a Biological Parent?

A pet peeve of mine is the use of the term biological parent as a synonym for genetic parent, especially in the context of surrogacy contracts. What’s wrong with this? First, it defines parenthood in terms of the connection that men have with their biological children. As sociologist Barbara Katz Rothman has pointed out, we wrongly discount pregnancy and birth when we speak of a “blood” relationship between parent and child as “the metaphorical blood of the genetic tie,” rather than “the real blood of pregnancy and birth … the mingled blood of mothers and their children.” I developed this point in an article a few years ago, arguing that a gestational mother is a “biological mother,” for purposes of Supreme Court precedent that treats a biological relationship as a prerequisite for a constitutional claim of parental rights.

Second, in the course of my current research project, I’ve learned more about why “biological parent” is inaccurate when used to exclude a gestational mother. The developing field of epigenetics studies how genes interact with environmental factors that influence gene expression–whether, when, and how particular genes are turned “on” or “off”. It turns out that the environment–including the “gestational environment”–can have heritable effects. For example, the diet of a pregnant mouse can be manipulated so that her offspring are either black or yellow, even though they are genetically identical. That isn’t surprising. What is surprising, however, is that the effect persists into the next generation, as part of the heritable “instructions” that are passed down from one generation to the next, still without a change in DNA. Even if we define parenthood on the basis of the transmission of heritable traits, gestation seems to qualify.

This research has had an interesting reception in the reproductive technology industry. Agencies that sell “donor eggs” have touted epigenetic research in order to reassure recipients that they are “real” mothers by virtue of gestation, even if they don’t provide DNA. On the other hand, participants in surrogacy arrangements tend simply to reject the claim that the gestational mother can affect who the child is.


Spousal Hiring and Gender

Over at Prawfsblawg, Howard Wasserman has started an interesting discussion about spousal hiring in the legal academy. Responding to comments by Jeffrey Harrison on Class Bias in Higher Education, he discusses the pros and cons and whether the practice deserves the epithet “cronyism”—or, as Professor Harrison calls it, “the new cronyism.” Commenters have suggested that spousal hiring is class biased because two-academic couples are more likely to come from a privileged background and that spousal hiring may interfere with diversity goals.

I agree with Professor Wasserman that spousal hiring can be a useful recruiting tool and that some help for the spouse is a near-necessity for schools in remote locations.  I would be interested in statistics about the demographic characteristics of two-academic and one-academic couples. But as long as we’re sticking to anecdote, my experience is the opposite of Professor Wasserman’s that “a heterosexual male faculty member is just as likely these days to have a wife with a career as the converse.” A surprisingly large number of my male colleagues (at my institution and elsewhere) are married to women who work part-time or not at all outside the home. Yet I know only two women in the legal academy whose partners are at home with their children—and one of the partners is a woman, too.

If my experience is typical, it follows that resistance to hiring spouses—or even helping out with the spouse’s job search by networking with local firms, which Professor Harrison also objects to—is a barrier to hiring women. By my count, in the last six years, the lack of opportunities for a spouse or partner has caused my institution to lose four candidates to whom we offered jobs—one man and three women. In their stead, we hired one woman and three men.

Traditionally, women have been the “trailing spouses,” accepting lectureships and the like in order to follow their husbands, often at the expense of their own career prospects elsewhere. The only thing “new” about spousal hiring in academia is that it now goes both ways.


Pregnancy and Disability

Yesterday I posted about a dilemma in parental leave policies: The desire for formal sex equality leads to equal “caretaking” leave for men and women; when this leave is paid by the employer, it is typically quite short. The reality of biological differences is dealt with by providing separately for “disability” leave for pregnant and birthing women, often for a much longer period. In practice, that means that a woman who gives birth has an extended opportunity to bond with and care for a new child, while people who become parents in other ways do not. This creates an early discrepancy in caretaking between birthing and non-birthing parents. When children are adopted, the family as a whole suffers from not having that extra leeway for caretaking.

A woman in New York has filed a suit challenging these inequities in a novel way: Kara Krill received 13 weeks of paid maternity leave when she gave birth to her first child. Krill was unable to bear another child, and she and her husband hired a gestational surrogate, who gave birth to twins. This time, Krill was allowed only 5 days of leave, under the company’s policy for adoptive parents. Her suit alleges disability discrimination, saying that if it weren’t for her disability, which required her to have her children through a surrogate, she would have given birth and been entitled to the full 13 weeks of leave.

Krill faces an uphill battle under current law. I’m drawn, however, to the idea of designing parental leave policy around the idea that the inability to give birth is a disability that should be accommodated—and not just for women. Read More


Sex Equity in Parental Leave

Many thanks to Solangel, Dan, and the rest of Co-Op for inviting me to blog here this month. I’ll start out with a few posts about parental leave policies, inspired by this story about a woman named Kara Krill. (H/T Family Law Prof Blog) Krill had children through a surrogate mother. When her employer refused to give her the same maternity leave that is available to employees who give birth, she sued for disability discrimination. But first some background on the core dilemma of U.S. equality law when it comes to parental leave:

U.S. law aspires to formal equality for women and men in the workplace. When it comes to parental leave, that has meant maintaining a sharp theoretical separation between pregnancy leave and caretaking leave. Under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, pregnancy leave is treated as disability leave and is supposed to cover the period of time in which pregnancy and birth disable a woman from doing her job. Caretaking leave—time to bond with and care for a new baby—is supposed to be available on a sex-neutral basis. In Nevada v. Hibbs, when the Supreme Court upheld the Family and Medical Leave Act as applied to the states, it said that Congress could legitimately force employers to give (unpaid) caretaking leave to everyone, in order to address the problem of many employers giving such leave to women only, by calling it “pregnancy leave” even when it was much longer than necessary for physical recovery from birth.

The distinction between pregnancy/disability leave and caretaking leave is neat in theory but breaks down immediately in practice. Read More