High Court Vs. Working Women

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High Court Vs. Working Women

Martha Burk

On May 29, the Bush Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts delivered what could be a devastating blow to women experiencing discrimination in pay and promotion. After many years of employment at Goodyear, Lilly Ledbetter learned that she had been paid less all along than the 16 men at her management level, including those with less seniority. She sued under the nation's main gender discrimination law, Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but the Court said she had no case. Why? In an opinion delivered by Bush appointee Samuel Alito, the majority said Title VII only allowed Ledbetter 180 days to sue from the time her discriminatory pay was initially set, even though it had been a tightly held secret in the company for over a decade before she found out about it.

While the statute does indeed call for an employee to act within 180 days of experiencing a specific discriminatory event, courts for the last 40 years have treated each new short paycheck as such an event-until now. Legal scholars are arguing about the long-term implications, but members of Congress aren't waiting. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., is introducing a bill to give women a fairer shake by allowing a longer timeline for action.

Meanwhile, sex discrimination in corporate America marches on. In a case filed against General Electric two days after the ruling, female lawyers and senior management employees put forth damning evidence that against the company. Citing pay and promotion data on top management, the women demonstrate that GE's claims to "diversity" and valuing female employees under lead defendant Chairman Jeffrey Immelt are, as they say in Texas, all hat and no cattle.

We shouldn't be surprised. Immelt, along with his board members Sam Nunn and Douglas Warner (also named in the suit) stood staunchly against women a few years ago by maintaining their memberships in the biggest ol' boys cult of all, Augusta National Golf Club. Even in the face of a national controversy over the club's policies, they defied their own corporate statements about fairness. At the same time, Immelt was engaging in what I call the "diversity dodge," that many companies employ to make themselves look good on race and gender issues while doing nothing, or worse, hiding outright discrimination. Immelt was saying all the right words, touting the "GE Women's Network" as a pipeline for top jobs. But the numbers, then as now, were damning. Of the 16,000 women in the Network (not all female employees belong), only 22 had made it to officer level in 2003.

The current suit, filed by Lorene Schaefer, a senior attorney with the company, tells us nothing has changed at GE. Citing a clearly male dominated "officer's club" in the senior ranks, the complaint shows that female representation at the officer level is still languishing at 13 percent. And while the suit does not address women at lower levels in the company, my bet is management's attitude toward female workers is one area where the "trickle down" theory works. If women at high levels are so blatantly shut out, what are the prospects for those in the rank and file?

While this case is certainly an indictment against one of America's largest companies, GE is of course not alone. Big corporations use diversity departments and meaningless initiatives all the time to obscure the truth. It's sort of like Exxon Mobil claiming to be "green" while dodging responsibility for the Exxon Valdez oil spill, where they've yet to pay out a dime, 18 years after the fact.

It's unknown what effect the latest ruling from the Supremes will have on the women at GE and thousands of their sisters at other companies getting paid less, promoted less, and often patted on the fanny to boot. But one thing is sure-big corporations headed by men who say one thing and do another will try to sell "diversity" in place of fairness as long as they're allowed to do it by lax laws and female-hostile courts.

Congress ought to act fast to right this wrong.

Martha Burk directs the Corporate Accountability Project for the National Council of Women's Organizations in Washington, D.C. This op-ed was distributed by Minuteman Media .

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