The Many Faces Of Gender Discrimination and Why It Won’t Go Away

The debate and issues related to gender parity within the workforce have been long-standing.

Questions as to whether females are barred indirectly from progressing into more senior roles or whether females experience negative attitudes in the workplace can be polarizing. However, statistics glaringly show lower numbers of women in more senior roles. Women make up 22% of the STEM workforce in comparison to the 78% of men (Statistics Canada, 2014), compounded with a gender pay gap of 30% (Statistics Canada, 2013) and differing attitudes towards working women, this article aims to observe some of the most recent cases of women in the modern day workplace.

One particular attitude of recent memory, that I believe showcases how much more we need to do with regards to stereotypes was in 2015 at the World Conference Centre of Science Journalists, South Korea. 2001 Nobel Prize Winner Sir Tim Hunt  indicated that “Three things happen when they (women) are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them they cry.” At the time, a flood of outrage poured over social media sites, leading to Sir Hunt’s public apology and his resignation from the Royal Society and University College London (UCL). Reports indicated that Sir Hunt’s remarks had been taken out of context and that he had not been serious in decrying the “emotional status” of female scientists. In fact, it appears that the above comments were followed by “Now seriously…. science needs women and you should do science despite all the obstacles.”

Whether Sir Tim Hunt’s comments were taken out of context or not, they still showcased that even at the highest levels of leadership or experience, there are discrepancies and misunderstandings when it comes to attitudes towards women in the workplace. In light of the comments made by Sir Tim Hunt, I would like to draw your attention to some examples of gender discrimination lawsuits and claims made in recent memory that were notable in the media:

 

1) The Pao Effect:

Ellen Pao and the employment discrimination lawsuit she carried out against her former employer Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers was considered both historic and brought the issue of gender disparity to the forefront. Ellen Pao joined Kleiner Perkins (venture capital firm) in 2005 working her way up to a junior partner position; she would later file a gender discrimination lawsuit in 2012. The lawsuit alleged that Ellen was not given the opportunity to move up into a more senior role and was passed over, despite her consistent hard work. In addition, the lawsuit also alleged retaliation and negative behavior from another male junior partner. According to the venture firm Pao was described as fiercely competitive, too quiet and difficult to work with, traits that were not sought after in a senior level position. The ensuing trial was heavily followed by social media outlets through live blogging and tweets. After the 24 day trial, the courts ruled in favour of Kleiner Perkins, whom in turn decided to not pursue legal costs from Pao if she chose not to appeal.

As of June, Pao has demanded $2.7 million from her former employer to not appeal the decision and could very well head back to the courts. The trial seemed to have generated a reality check for Silicon Valley and tech companies alike, as more gender discrimination cases came up since Pao’s case, an occurrence that was dubbed the “Pao Effect”.  Pao carried out a lengthy interview on the re/Code conference stage following the court’s decision, where she referenced the leaky pipeline effect: “It’s a much bigger issue. It’s the leaky pipeline, it’s not treating people fairly when they come in and when they get there. It’s not making it a fair playing field. It’s not giving people opportunities. It’s not giving people the recognition when they do succeed. There’s a whole slew of things that people can do to make it fairer and to give people an even playing field. And when you talk about the pipeline, that’s an excuse to not do anything.”(i)

2) Tinder vs Wolfe:

The massive dating app, Tinder, was faced with a sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuit by one of its former employees Whitney Wolfe. Wolfe has been credited as being an instrumental key player in Tinder’s early days, particularly in the marketing and sales side of things. Wolfe had been responsible for visiting college campuses and various social venues to promote the app in its early stages. The story has had different viewpoints and perspectives, with Wolfe allegedly being accused of using the co-founder title inappropriately. The lawsuit alleged that Wolfe was stripped of her title due to a claim that having women in senior positions made the company “look like a joke”. The lawsuit also included verbal harassment instances seen through text messages between Wolfe and Justin Mateen, Tinder Co-founder and CMO. The text messages showcased a series of vaguely threatening and aggressive texts that in turn forced Wolfe to resign from the company. The text messages also depicted a blatant disregard for Wolfe when she tried asking for help and assistance from Tinder’s founder Sean Rad. The parties settled out of court, with Wolfe allegedly receiving $1 million in compensation. Wolfe is now busy setting up a new dating app, Bumble, which will allow more freedom for women in responding to matches.

3) FIFA’s All-Exclusive Boys Club:

There have been a number of cases against FIFA with regards to its treatment of female athletes and its lack of female representation on executive committees, giving off an air of an exclusive boys club. Recently resigned and embattled FIFA President Sepp Blatter has been known to make sexist remarks, with his infamous 2004 comment on how female soccer players should wear “tighter shorts” to make the game more appealing. With regards to salaries, women soccer players are on the lower scale, earning $6000 to $30,000 (ii) annually, whilst their male counterparts earn anywhere from $7.1 million to the average salary of $207,831 (iii) (does not include brand endorsements, bonuses, etc). FIFA has also been known to exclude women from senior positions, including executive committees and auditory bodies. Alexandra Wrage, the former Independent Governance Committee member, resigned from her post due to “blatant sexism” within the corporation where she had been asked by FIFA executives “to stop recommending female candidates for governance positions.” (iv)

In 2015,  84 female soccer players from 13 countries filed a gender discrimination lawsuit with the Ontario Human Right’s Tribunal against FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association due to the fact that women soccer players would be forced to play on turf (artificial grass) as opposed to natural grass ahead of the 2015 women’s FIFA competition. Turf has been known to increase player injury and cause serious career-ending injuries. It’s interesting to note that male players never play on artificial grass and are provided with natural grass to play on. Shockingly as it may sound, FIFA threatened to bar all women participating in the lawsuit from playing for their countries in the upcoming Women’ s FIFA tournament being held in Canada that summer and soon after, the suit was dropped.

4) Twitter’s Glass Ceiling:

Tiny Huang, a female engineer, has been with Twitter since its early days, and is cited as being one of its earliest employees. However, Huang filed a lawsuit against Twitter for its alleged male dominated environment, where men were favored for promotion to more senior roles. Huang went on to further allege that Twitter intentionally overlooked women for promotion regardless of hard work and effort put in. Her case goes on to further describe how her male counterparts were promoted to senior roles while she was been overlooked and passed over despite her work ethic, glowing reviews, and stellar performance. What seemed to be even more damaging was that Huang wasn’t offered any adequate explanations for why she was being passed over, nor was she given any advice or tips for future improvements. Twitter has released its diversity report citing a clear 9:1 (v) split ratio of male to female tech employees, showing a strong and irrefutable gender disparity issue. Huang has since left Twitter determined to pursue her case citing that the tech giant “creates a glass ceiling for women that cannot be explained or justified by any reasonable business purpose.”

These cases represent a small fraction of the many gender discrimination cases that have arisen over time and include the Wal-Mart vs Dukes case, JPMorgan sexual harassment, Sterling Jewelers, Prada etc. It’s important to note here that the women associated with these cases are all highly educated individuals with consistent work ethic: Ellen Pao holds an electrical engineering degree, law degree, and an MBA, while Whitney Wolfe completed her International Studies degree and helped launch a successful dating app with clever marketing tactics. My point is that these women all have the potential and capabilities of moving forward; they have the resilience and drive to work hard and do not lack the expertise or the problem-solving skill set. So what is the issue? And how will we address these issues to 1) keep women within the workforce and 2) promote and encourage growth?

I think the reason why Sir Tim Hunt’s comments, although clarified as not having any ill-intentions, were heavily attacked because at this point in time there are far better things to say and do with regards to gender parity in the workplace as opposed to making a light-hearted remark. Additionally, if Sir Tim Hunt deserves an apology for the treatment he received over his ill-timed remarks, I also believe that the women who have been discriminated against and vilified deserve some consolation as well.

 

Previously published on Scinapsis (BenchSci)

i “Ellen Pao has somethings to say” re/code( 2015). http://recode.net/2015/06/22/here-comes-that-troublesome-ellen-pao-full-video/.

ii, iii “Sepp Blatter is leaving. FIFA’s sexist policies should go with him.” theguardian(2015). http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jun/03/sepp-blatter-leaving-fifa-sexist-policies.

iv “Sepp Blatter is leaving. FIFA’s sexist policies should go with him.” theguardian(2015). http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jun/03/sepp-blatter-leaving-fifa-sexist-policies.

v “Female engineer sues Twitter in latest discrimination case to hit Silicon Valley.” The Telegraph(2015).

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/11489181/Female-engineer-sues-Twitter-in-latest-discrimination-case-to-hit-Silicon-Valley.html.

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