Glass Ceiling

            Is your company ripe for a glass ceiling claim against it? If you answered “What’s a glass ceiling claim?” then you may have already lost the battle.

            A glass ceiling suit is one in which lower level employees that are women argue that they are ineligible for promotion not because of a lack of ability on their part but because the upper levels of management in a company are reserved for males. The women seek equal advancement opportunities, often by filing class action suits.

            The latest glass ceiling case in the news concerns a class action gender discrimination suit against Wal-Mart, in which the plaintiffs claim that women are paid less than men in Wal-Mart’s stores even when they have higher performance ratings and greater seniority, receive fewer promotions and have to wait longer than men to be promoted.

The number of women represented by the suit could be as high as 1.6 million women. The suit, which has not yet been tried, has been predicted to impact pay parity nationwide if the class is successful in presenting their discrimination and glass ceiling claims.

The 9th Circuit federal appeals court in California heard arguments in August of this year about whether the class was properly certified. No decision has yet been issued.

            The Wal-Mart plaintiff’s expert statistician who provided testimony for the class certification hearing in 2004 said that women employed by Wal-Mart make 5-15% less than similarly-situated men. The same expert found that while more than 65% of Wal-Mart’s hourly employees are women, only 33% of its managers are women.

            The class action against Wal-Mart is part of an effort by women’s groups and plaintiffs’ employment lawyers to break down the barriers in corporate America to women and minorities for advancement.

Back in the late 1990s, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission responded to a federal Glass Ceiling Commission’s report that government must lead the way in pursuing diversity in the workplace. The EEOC’s concern was based on surveys of the top Fortune 1000 industrial and 500 service companies that show that 95 percent of senior level managers are men at a time when women make up 45 percent of the workforce. The conclusion that the Glass Ceiling Commission made was that there are artificial barriers that keep these working women out of the executive suite.

            Critics of that glass ceiling initiative pointed out that the commission ignored smaller companies, even though American women own 7.7 million businesses, which employ 15.5 million Americans, 35% more than Fortune 500 companies employ worldwide. The critics also cited studies that show that fewer women than men aspire to be CEOs and it is the responsibility of women, not corporate America, to dream bigger dreams and then put in the hard work to make them a reality.

            If this hard work is rebuffed, some women will chose to use the route of a sex discrimination lawsuit to break through the glass ceiling. How do you make sure your company is not a defendant in such a suit? Here are some suggestions if your company has at least 15 employees and could someday face a gender discrimination suit:

1.      Look around at your workforce. Do you have women in upper management? If not, why not? Examine your own motives and biases and that of your management team. Then go out and actively seek qualified women and minority candidates. It may take more work than hiring a fraternity brother, but it will result in the dual benefits of a more diverse workplace and better statistics if you get sued.

2.       Diversity starts from the top down. The CEO of your company must demonstrate a commitment to promoting women and minorities to influence the corporate culture. Obviously this means that racial slurs, lewd jokes and stereotypes have no place in the executive offices.

3.       Make shattering the glass ceiling a priority. Have a business plan that addresses promotion of underrepresented minorities. Train your supervisors and line managers to mentor and reward diversity.

4.       Adopt family-friendly policies such as flexible hours, job sharing, family leave, and cafeteria plans that allow childcare payments to be made with pretax dollars. These policies encourage women (and men) to value a company and perform the hard work necessary to be promoted.

5.       Review your compensation structure and methods of assigning work to make sure that men are not getting the plum assignments and consequently the better raises, bonuses, and promotions.

6.       Document any offers of promotion that are made to women and minorities. If they turn you down for the promotion, ask why and record the reasons given. It may be true that some people don’t aspire to the executive suite. If a woman tells you that she doesn’t want to work the nights and weekends necessary for a management position, be sure your files reflect that specific information. It could be critical in winning a glass ceiling suit.

Leave a Reply