Behind the gendered workplace

In a law review call and response, a law professor and a sociologist take on the issue of how to address gender discrimination legally.

Duke Law professor Katharine Bartlett argues in the Virginia Law Review that strengthening options for suing employers is not the answer to gender discrimination. Instead, the good intentions of employers and managers should be supported, through

strong, unambiguous norms, trust, teamwork, leadership, positive example, and opportunities to grow and advance. [On the other hand…] Excessive legal control and pressure undermine people’s sense of autonomy, competence, and relatedness and thus their commitment to nondiscrimination norms.

In other words, we need more carrot and less stick to combat gender discrimination.

In response, sociologist William Bielby, who has worked on behalf of the Wal-mart women’s class-action suit, counters that, even if crude overt discrimination has diminished, not all the remaining gender inequality is caused by unconscious bias. He warns that, since the ” ‘cognitive turn’ in workplace bias discourse”:

…scholars, litigators, human resource professionals, and diversity consultants have become so enamored with the notion of ubiquitous unconscious, implicit, or hidden bias that they are quick to attribute systemic workplace racial and gender inequality to what is going on in people’s heads. Instead, it is vital to consider what is built into organizational structures, processes, and routines.

As it happens, this is the 20th anniversary of the classic article by Joan Acker, “Hierarchies, Jobs, Bodies: A Theory of Gendered Organizations” (now the second-most cited article in the history of the journal Gender & Society). In the Spring newsletter for the ASA’s OOW section (don’t ask), Acker has a brief essay in which she reiterates the premise of her original article:

“The worker” under capitalism is implicitly defined as unencumbered by any obligations other than those to the job, and work is usually organized on the basis of this assumption. Historically, women have been seen as encumbered wives and mothers and thus not real workers and not entitled to the rewards and rights of real workers.

She and her colleagues have completed a study of welfare reform — Stretched Thin: Poor Families, Welfare Work, and Welfare Reform. Now she sees welfare reform as “part of the redefinition of most women in neoliberal society.”

Equality may be defined now as the transformation of women into neoliberal gender-neutral unencumbered workers whose main efforts go to the job. This path to gender equality is impossible for many women, and some men, for whom it constitutes a fundamental contradiction: work expectations and family needs do not mesh.

Acker’s article was important for establishing the gendered nature of workplace “structures, processes and routines” that Bielby is talking about — and wrote about in the Wal-mart case. Built-in assumptions are related to ways of thinking, but they are more than that — they become established ways of doing business, imprinting organizations with patterns of inequality — especially having to do with job segregation.

My own research with Matt Huffman has helped establish that women in management positions reduce gender inequality at work (a paper forthcoming in Administrative Science Quarterly takes this further). We can’t say, however, if that’s because they have different assumptions about men and women, less motivation (and incentive) to discriminate, or more commitment to changing the established ways of doing things.

Working women of Wal-Mart united

The women of Wal-Mart may be closer to a settlement in their mammoth sex discrimination suit. Reports NYTimes:

In a closely watched case, a sharply divided federal appeals court on Monday ruled 6-5 that a sex discrimination lawsuit against Wal-Mart could proceed as a class action for more than a million women. The suit is the biggest employment discrimination case in the nation’s history.

I’ve used the case to teach about sex segregation and discrimination for several years, partly because of the excellent and accessible reports done by their experts, including Richard Drogan’s statistical analysis and Bill Bielby’s analysis of the company’s personnel policies and practices.

It’s a textbook case, so to speak. From Drogan’s report, fewer and fewer women as you move up the chain of command:

And Bielby’s conclusion:

[S]ubjective and discretionary features of the company’s personnel policy and practice make decisions about compensation and promotion vulnerable to gender bias.  In addition, I have concluded that there are significant deficiencies in the way the company monitors its personnel policies and practices, establishes diversity goals, and evaluates managers’ contributions to equal opportunity objectives.  Personnel policy and practice at Wal-Mart as implemented in the field has features known to be vulnerable to gender bias.  Discretionary and subjective elements of Wal-Mart’s personnel system and inadequate oversight and ineffective anti-discrimination efforts contribute to disparities between men and women in their compensation and career trajectories at the company.

Allowing the case to proceed as a class action increases the potential costs to the company astronomically, increasing the odds they’ll settle.

The new decision is here.

International adoption under siege?

After a day at the 2010 Adoption Policy Conference.

I’m not an adoption expert, but I know more today than I did yesterday. Spend a day in a room full of legal experts, advocates and activists devoted to promoting and facilitating international adoption, and you’re bound to learn something. But these days you’re also bound to get a feeling that the whole enterprise is under siege.

What had looked like a tidal wave of adoptions into the U.S. just a few years ago now looks like a roller coaster whose ride is coming to an end:

One of the most articulate versions of the siege story came in the talk by Elizabeth Bartholet from Harvard Law School, which mostly drew from this recent paper:

International adoption is under siege, with the number of children placed dropping in each of the last several years, and many countries imposing severe new restrictions. Key forces mounting the attack claim the child human rights mantle, arguing that such adoption denies heritage rights and often involves abusive practices. Many nations assert rights to hold on to the children born within their borders, and others support these demands citing subsidiarity principles. But children’s most basic human rights are to grow up in the families that will often be found only through international adoption. These rights should trump any conflicting state sovereignty claims.

The forces of siege were not well represented at today’s conference, which revolved around the crisis in Haiti. Many advocates have been frustrated with UNICEF in particular, which sounded the alarm about the potential for abuse and trafficking in the aftermath of the earthquake. To the critics’ minds, this just follows UNICEF’s historically negative attitude toward international adoption. UNICEF’s statement on the practice in general lists international adoption as “one of a range of care options,” not as good as being raised in their families of origin but better than staying in an orphanage. In practice, however, UNICEF seems to treat international adoption as a failure of the domestic system, rather than as a necessary response to the needs of parentless children.

On the other hand, one of the heroes in the room was Whitney Reitz, the representative from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services who was credited with engineering the “humanitarian parole” of more 900 Haitian children after the earthquake. These were children whose adoptions were already approved and matched to American parents before the earthquake, but whose final paperwork had not been completed. Reitz and her colleagues, with explicit support from above in the Obama administration, jury-rigged a system to approve their entry into the U.S., which required a signature from Haiti’s prime minister in each case. That system is imperfect — for example, they are not U.S. citizens yet, as orphan adoptees normally are upon arrival — but considering the building with their files in it collapsed, that is to be expected.

On the other hand, I wasn’t sure I was happy to hear Reitz say, “The idea was to help the kids. And if we overlooked Hague, I don’t think I’m going to apologize.” That’s a reference to the Hague Adoption Convention, which the U.S. ratified, and the principles of which the U.S. “strongly supports.” (To clarify this, since Haiti is not a signatory to the Convention, its rules don’t apply to adoptions to the U.S.) Of course, everyone was against corruption and abuse anywhere in the adoption process, under the oft-repeated triple mandate: “ethical, legal, and transparent.”

Anyway, I can’t resolve the battle of competing rights — the right to a family, your original family, a loving home, a secure permanent setting, etc. Everyone seems to agree explicitly that “there is no right to adopt, only the right of the child to be adopted,” but the reality is that the demand generated by adoptive parents is one of the driving forces in this arena — and that includes their money. (As Bartholet points out, of course, that also means international adoption is a way of helping children without government spending.)

Ironically, although many advocates for children are adoptive parents, I am starting to get the feeling that if policy is going to be true to that premise — children’s rights, not adoptive parents’ rights — then the adoptive parents shouldn’t be in the room when the policy is written. In other words, the humanitarian impulse, at least ideally, could be the foundation of public policy — but we can’t expect it to be the motivation for adoptive parents any more than it is for birth parents.

France’s 50-50 boardroom mandate?

A bigger slice of the icing.

France’s ruling party has proposed a requirement of gender balance on corporate boards for all companies on the French stock exchange within five years. Currently, only 8% of top-500 board members are women. Under the plan, companies would have 18 months to get to 20% female, and four years to get to 40%.

The proposal was inspired by a similar rule already in effect in Norway, which requires 40% female on boards. Under that rule, women’s representation increased from 16% in 2005 to 39% in 2008. In the U.S., Fortune 500 companies are at Norway’s pre-quota level, having seen an increase to just 15% in 2008, from 10% in 1995, according to Catalyst (but the pace of progress has slowed in recent years).

Corporate board representation is not same as having women in lower level management. At that level, women’s presence is much greater – slowly approaching 50% – but their egalitarian influence appears to depend on their relative status.  So the impact of a reform like that proposed in France is not clear. The tiny number of women at the top benefit, but their effect on the progress of women at lower levels is not established.

Beyond gender, other kinds of quotas are a different story. India is the largest country to impose widespread quotas to combat its caste system. Under their rules, almost half of all state college and university spots must be help for students from lower castes. The quota exist alongside anti-discrimination laws, so that the same articles of the constitution include the “prohibition of discrimination” or “equality of opportunity” as well as a clause permitting “special provision for the advancement” or “reservations in favour of” the “backward classes.” Such laws are illegal in the U.S., as post-hoc interpretations of the 14th Amendment are used to protect Whites. Affirmative action to counter underrepresentation of minorities is now only permitted in increasingly rare cases.