Category: contribution

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Pour Myself a Cup of Ambition

It feels indulgent to have the chance to respond to reviews of my book, Nine to Five: How Gender, Sex, and Sexuality Continue to Define the American Workplace (Cambridge 2016)—all the more so given that the back-and-forth is almost instantaneous. I so appreciate Concurring Opinions for providing a forum to hear what readers have to say, and for giving me the last—or at least the next—word.

Nancy Dowd posted first with an important and provocative set of questions. She makes the accurate observation that the book is “unabashedly” focused on women. Indeed, it is. She encourages that we ask the “other questions,” invoking the advice of Mari Matsuda to look at objectionable patterns and practices and ask whether there isn’t something other than the obvious thing going on. In other words, when you identify a practice that is harmful to women, ask whether it might also involve race or class. And even when looking at problems from a strictly gender perspective—think about men. Where are they in the equation? Dowd is the perfect person to encourage this broadening of perspectives, as she has been a pioneer in the emerging field of masculinities theory (her 2010 book The Man Question is a staple in the field) and has done a brilliant job in her more recent work of unmasking the racial biases in the juvenile justice system. So why didn’t I ask more complex questions about race, class, gender identity, and the intersectional effects of these characteristics? The cheeky answer is that a book that managed to ask all those questions would be long enough to be slapped with a cover price that would deter all potential readers. But the real answer is that my focus on women as individuals and as a category was purposeful. It was an effort to refute a complacency that has developed specifically around gender.   People tend to think that because the law embraces gender equality, we have achieved it. References to a post-gender millennium and headlines saying “We did it!” (with a picture of Rosie the Riveter) make me crazy. What I see when I look at the experience of women at work is that gender is everywhere and it operates largely to the disadvantage of women. Read More

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Just a Step on the Boss Man’s Ladder

There is no greater privilege as a writer than to have a group of people you deeply respect take the time to read your work and respond to it. Thanks to Naomi Cahn, who organized this symposium and launched it with a wonderful introduction, I have been granted this privilege for my new book, Nine to Five: How Gender, Sex, and Sexuality Continue to Define the American Workplace (Cambridge 2016).

This book was a labor of love. As many of the commentators have noted, it is based on a column I have been writing every other week for over fifteen years (the first ten for FindLaw’s Writ and the last five for Justia’s Verdict).   It blows my mind that what started as a one-off essay on whether a woman should be able to annul a marriage to a man she was auctioned off to on the reality television show “Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?” would have turned into one of the most important pieces of my professional life. Because of this column, I have gotten to chronicle legal and social developments in my areas of interest and expertise in real time—a refreshing change from the world of academic publishing—and to be part of an ongoing conversation with an audience of litigants, lawyers, judges, policymakers, journalists, and the general public.

When I began writing my column, I was at the beginning my academic career, and I had just given birth to the first of my three sons. As this book was published, I was teaching that son how to drive in the middle of a significant professional transition from Hofstra Law School, after a 17-year run, to SMU Dedman School of Law, where I will serve as the inaugural holder of the Ellen K. Solender Endowed Chair in Women and Law. This book, which collects columns on women and work and ties them together with introductory essays, gave me the opportunity to reflect at this time of transition not only on my own life and career, but also on the developments in sex equality law—where we were, where we are now, and where we are headed. The book, although packaged in a lighthearted style (with some of my favorite sex discrimination cartoons!), ends on a somewhat depressing note: despite a complicated and robust set of laws mandating women’s workplace equality, the terrain remains uneven at best, slanted firmly towards inequality at worst.  In all too many respects, today’s workplace is similar to the one farcically depicted in the movie 9 to 5, which hit the big screen almost forty years ago.  Why haven’t we as a society made more progress? From this vantage point, I feel a kind of solidarity with Ellen Solender, who spoke of her mother’s hope that women’s suffrage would bring about broad-based equality for women, but her own disappointment that even her granddaughters may not live to see it. That we aren’t there yet just means we have to continue the fight. Nine to Five is one tiny piece of the effort to promote equality for all women, and my new position will be the perfect platform from which to work.

In a forthcoming post, I will respond to the provocative and interesting points raised by the reviewers, to whom I am grateful for their generosity of time and spirit, as well as their individual and collective expertise.

 

 

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Working 9 to 5: What a Way to Make a Living

Joanna Grossman’s Nine to Five:  How Gender, Sex, and Sexuality Continue to Define the American Workplace is an invaluable contribution to the popular understanding of how gender works – or doesn’t – at work.  With wry humor and a clarity that’s all-too-rare among those who write about the law, Grossman provides a comprehensive, must-read primer for the lay reader.  But Nine to Five also is a bracing corrective to the notion that the issues raised by the popular 1980 movie of the same name are remotely as anachronistic as the bad fashion sported onscreen by Dabney Coleman, Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton, and Lily Tomlin. Read More

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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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the Medium and the Message

Saturday, June 11, 2016

9:18 AM

After perfecting the concise, online column over a period of years, Joanna Grossman has invented a new book format in the legal world with Nine to Five: How Gender, Sex, and Sexuality Continue to Define the American Workplace.   Grossman provided engaging, tightly written and informative columns to Findlaw’s Writ and Justia’s Verdict on a range of gender-related cases and legal events as they occurred. With primarily case-based discussions explaining the relevance of seemingly technical doctrinal distinctions to larger equity problems, Grossman’s columns addressed the immediate case as it came down, quickly situating it in a larger framework while distilling its importance into an easily digestible format.

 

Writing any of these columns requires a speed and focus anyone would admire; writing 350 of them must have become an intellectual discipline and practice of its own over the last fifteen years. But one of the challenges of timely writing, and probably the reason so few legal scholars sustain it over this impressive length of time, is that it seems to disappear quickly, swallowed by the next news event grabbing reader attention. If a writer has a point of view, which Grossman does, no single column can feel like it has made the convincing case for that point of view. Each column suggests an addition to the argument, but each is incremental. When writing each, it must have been challenging to accept that the contribution could add to the overall case only incrementally. So by taking 57 of her columns and publishing them in this format, Grossman has done more than cataloged them for our convenience. Instead, she’s done something substantively more interesting: she’s made the case for her point of view with circumstantial evidence in such numbers that the pattern becomes hard to dispute. That’s a big payoff for fifteen years of labor! The book is not about any one column or one argument. Instead, the book makes a convincing case that law has been somewhat helpful, but really not exceptionally helpful, in advancing sex equality in the workplace. Each column is fresh and present to its case and its moment, written in the direct wake of a decision or event, which a more bloodless retrospective analysis of the cases and events would likely not replicate. But this book provides the benefit of a retrospective by cumulating data points for a larger picture. Journal entries over fifteen years, recorded in their moment, give us a trustworthy living perspective on how the risks and significance of a decision were perceived in the moment, inviting us to decide whether over time and in the light of persistent inequity the risks (excessive litigation, for example) were overstated.

 

For example, at one point Grossman discusses a potential technical morass required for a successful retaliation claim, resting on whether an employee’s belief that a serious incident would give rise to a solid discrimination claim was accurate. I couldn’t help thinking how conventional, and reasonable, that employee’s belief is culturally, even if incorrect legally. That incorrect belief that legal claims are readily available and easily brought to bear is a perfect expression of the gap between conventional views of strong employee rights and actual legal barriers to realizing those rights.   Put together, the cases and incidents discussed in this book show a persistent pre-occupation by courts and in the culture with fear that legal rights of employees will unreasonably burden employers, a pre-occupation that makes courts quick to place procedural hurdles in the way of claimants. There’s nothing new in that observation, of course, but the accumulation of rich and present discussions of 57 disappointing responses to inequity drives the observation home in a particular way. Despite Grossman’s wit and entertaining writing style, the book is sobering.