Despite Legislation for Equal Opportunities
Despite legislation for equal opportunities, sexism is still evident in the workplace. Women have made great advancements in the workforce and have become an integral part of the labor market. They have greater access to higher education and as a result, greater access to traditionally male dominated professions such as law. While statistics show that women are equal to men in terms of their numbers in the law profession, it is clear however, that they have not yet achieved equality in all other areas of their employment. Discrimination in the form of gender, sex and sexual harassment continues to be a problem in today’s society.
Historically, females have been discriminated against in the United States based solely on their gender. Gender or sex discrimination may be described as the unfair treatment of a person in their employment because of that person’s sex. It is illegal to discriminate based on sex and it may result in negative effects on employment include pay, position and title, advancements and training opportunities or whether or not an individual is hired or fired from a job. Sexual harassment by definition is based on conduct of a sexual nature. An article on ENotes.com describes sexual harassment as; “Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conducts of a sexual nature constitute (are) sexual harassment when: (1) submission to (agree to) . . . or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting such individuals, or (2) such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile (threatening), or offensive working environment” (ENotes.com, n.d.).
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The law provides substantial protection for employees from discrimination by employers or coworkers. The United States Supreme Court, as well as federal district and state courts, defines employee rights and an employer’s liability for employment law violations. Treatment on the job, including hiring, firing, and promotions, must be based on qualifications and merit and not on race, gender, age, sexual preference or how one responds to sexual advances. Yet despite these laws and policies, many employees continue to suffer from workplace harassment and employment discrimination. Although great strides in fighting gender discrimination were taken in the 1970s, largely due to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, abuses falling within the category of sexual harassment generally were not addressed. Finally, in 1980, the EEOC wrote and released guidelines that defined sexual harassment. They described it as one form of sex discrimination prohibited by the 1964 act.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 referred to as Title VII, prohibits employment discrimination and harassment based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin in addition to sexual harassment. The law specifically states; “It shall be unlawful employment practice for an employer: to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his [or her] compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin…”(EEOC, n.d.). The law’s protections apply to both current workers and job applicants. Title VII also established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to administer the law and promote equal employment opportunity.
The Civil Rights Act of 1991 amended Title VII and provided for monetary damages in cases of intentional discrimination or unlawful harassment. These damages include payment for future money losses along with emotional pain and suffering. The Supreme Court did not address the issue of sexual harassment until the 1986 case of Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57, 1986. The ruling in Meritor became a turning point for sexual harassment cases. The Court used the EEOC’s guidelines to unanimously decide that sexual harassment in the workplace is illegal and protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Discrimination is true across all industries and business including the practice of law. The one profession charged with prosecution and defense of such cases – even it is not immune and therefore must take action against discrimination. Growing incident and concern of discrimination of gender and sex and sexual discrimination has opened the eyes of many to its true prevalence. In a report on The American Bar, Ed Poll talks about avoiding discrimination in the law firm.
Poll starts by stating; “Law firms are not exempt from the legal requirements to operate a workplace free from discrimination. That means ensuring that characteristics other than an individual’s skills, experience and knowledge do not become factors in making employment decisions. However, firms by their traditional nature as partnerships are often highly subjective and personalized environments, in which employment decisions are more arbitrary than the law allows” (Poll, 2008). This report adds validity to the fact that the law profession is just as vulnerable to sex and gender discrimination and sexual harassment as any other industry. With a renewed focus on sexual harassment, two of the largest and most well known sexual harassment cases the U.S. Government come to mind. In 1991 during the confirmation hearings of Justice Clarence Thomas, sexual harassment was brought to the attention of the nation.
Anita Hill, a former colleague of Thomas, accused him of using inappropriate language and sexually harassing herself and other female colleagues during the time they worked together. Justice Thomas denied the allegations and they were never proved true but this incident opened the eyes of the entire nation to the prevalence of sexual harassment. Partly due to this increased visibility, Congress passed the 1991 Civil Rights Act allowing for monetary payments to be paid to victims of sexual harassment.
Staying in the realm of the government, President Clinton was himself accused of sexual harassment. Paula Jones was a state employee when Clinton was Arkansas governor and accused him of exposing himself to her and propositioning her for oral sex. A settlement was reached in the case and Jones dropped the suit. Then like poetic justice, the Jones case paved the way for investigations into the then President’s sex life, which resulted in the Monica Lewinsky scandal and President Clinton’s ultimate impeachment in 1998. That same year Clinton, before his impeachment, in his testimony before the Grand Jury suggested, “Anita Hill should never have been allowed to levy charges of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas before Thomas was appointed to the Supreme Court” (Gallagher, n.d.). Clinton’s views aside, his remarks and subsequent actions with Lewinsky, illustrate that sexual harassment has yet to be generally recognized as a serious offense. Law firms are not without their share of discrimination and harassment suits.
Numerous suits have been filed against some of the most prestigious firm in our country. One such suit was filed by a Paralegal against a well know Utah firm for sexual harassment before and during her pregnancy. She alleged that attorneys at the firm, including a top partner, referred to woman employees using derogatory and vulgar statements. She further alleged that the firm discriminated against pregnant employees concerning work hours, job assignments and employment status. According to the suit, the Paralegal claimed the top partner, upset that she was pregnant suggested abortion, going as far as showing her Utah statute on the subject. Another case in a Delaware law firm attracted attention not only because of the details of the case but also because both the plaintiff and the alleged harasser were female lawyers. The attorney making the claim stated that during her involvement with the firm, she was subjected to a “hostile environment” due to the sexually charged conversations from her direct supervisor.
A suite against a “Top 50” law firm for sex discrimination was like reading a story prior to any discrimination laws. The female employees claimed discrimination from the hostile old boys’ club. Claiming their male supervisors went to great lengths to keep them out of management positions, including lying about dates of training, promoting less qualified men over them, and then taking these men to strip clubs to conduct business along with clients. Meanwhile, the women were subjected to the silent treatment, the worst assignments and the offer to a seat in the boss’s lap. These cases prove sexual harassment is not to be taken lightly. As courts and employers take it more seriously, Americans can rest assured that a claim of sexual harassment will not be ignored again. Like any business, a law office must treat all employees in a non-discriminatory manner as defined by law. Having a comprehensive job description for every staff position in the law office is essential to avoiding allegations of unfairness. The absence of such descriptions promotes inconsistency and threatens objectivity. Descriptions should include the specific, significant tasks of each position and the performance standards by which the accomplishment of these tasks is judged.
In an article by Samantha Gluck on “The Effects of Gender Discrimination in the Workplace”, she starts out by saying; “According to TNS Research Surveys, 68 percent of women surveyed believe gender discrimination exists in the workplace. Federal law protects women and other minorities from discrimination in the work place. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 ended the practice of paying men more than women when performing the same jobs and duties. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act extended this protection to other minorities. Despite these protections, many women still feel gender-based discrimination is a problem in some businesses” (Gluck, n.d.). Gluck goes on to list and describe some of the effects of discrimination as lost productivity, family responsibilities, promotions, and destruction. Lost productivity occurs when a discrimination victim experiences a loss of motivation and morale necessary to perform their job effectively. Family responsibilities that entail young children at home may be a factor, although illegal, in hiring decisions. A hiring manager may feel the woman would be torn between her job and home responsibly.
Although it can happen to either gender, women are most often passed over for promotions due to preconceived notions regarding their gender roles and abilities. Lastly, Gluck talks about destruction, in the sense of retaliation for the discrimination. Because of the resentment and loss of self-esteem, the employee may resort to physical violence towards others or property and may engage in malicious rumors that could hurt other employees and the law firm. The requirement that a law office, like any other business, must treat all employees in a non-discriminatory manner as defined by law would seem beyond question. Law firms should adhere to the same business principles required of their clients along with complying with all the laws applicable to their clients. Failure to do so risks penalties that could jeopardize the firm’s existence. Discrimination results can have a lasting and sometimes devastating effect on a law firm. Discrimination can leave a company open to a civil suit where the damages awarded could be significant. This may not be a problem for larger law firms but for the majority, which are smaller firms, it could become more than they can afford.
The community and media have long memories and this could result in a firm facing negative public opinion, which could also lead to a loss of business and the inability to find potential employees. The Supreme Court and state courts have clearly shown that they will apply EEOC guidelines in sexual harassment cases. These guidelines include directions for employers on how to prevent, recognize, investigate, and resolve sexual harassment and as a result, many firms have established steps to follow in the instance of a complaint. Complaints may be filed within the business or directly with the EEOC or state or local agencies responsible for fair employment practices and in severe or unresolved cases, lawsuits may be filed seeking damages. Discrimination in the form of gender, sex and sexual harassment has been a problem that the American society and our court systems are continually faced with. Although the law now provides for significant protections, we will continue to see such attitude and actions within our business communities. The ongoing battle of eliminating sexual harassment depends on constant vigilance in the workplace and law firms as well.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has grown over the past few decades to ensure that employees, as well as employers, are protected against all employment discrimination. It is extremely important that both employers and employees know and understand what the law means and how to handle such acts of discrimination. As more amendments are passed into law, employers need to have clear and concise policies to help fight against discrimination. Now thanks to this Act and many others, age discrimination is not allowed for any age.
The EEOC has changed and affected many people’s lives. With the laws they enforced people are treated more equally and have many more opportunities. The steps the EEOC takes is to process discrimination complaints, issue written regulations and informs gatherings and dissemination. Thanks to the foundation of the EEOC many people have a better opportunity to make their life different. With the help of the EEOC the Equal Pay Act of 1963, The Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 have become successful and have helped many Americans with their careers.