Sterling Jewelers, Inc., the parent company of Jared the Galleria of Jewelry and Kay Jewelers, is facing explosive allegations - and a national class action lawsuit - alleging its "boys club" culture discriminated against women and encouraged sexual harassment. Hundreds of women have joined the lawsuit.
Since 2008, Sterling has been involved in arbitration with a plaintiff class of nearly 69,000 current and former employees over alleged violations of the Equal Pay Act. The women say they faced age discrimination, lower pay, and were denied promotions in favor of less experienced male coworkers. They were not allowed to discuss pay issues, and, if they complained, were often subjected to retaliation.
A Toxic Corporate Culture for Women
The lawsuit also provides a shocking window into a company where women were allegedly treated as sexual objects on a regular basis. Documents filed in support of the complaint say that women were encouraged by senior levels of management to sleep with men in the company to secure promotions. Allegations have been made that top male executives routinely sent "scouting parties" to retail locations to identify attractive women employees as potential targets for sexual advances. Filings also describe the mandatory annual company-wide managers meeting as an alcohol-soaked "sex-fest" where women faced aggressive sexual advances from male executives.
Women who used a company hotline to report abuse or seek help faced verbal attacks and, often, swift termination.
Sterling Case Highlights Obstacles Women Still Face
The Sterling case underscores the fact that, even in 2017, women still face significant challenges in the workplace. There are more women than ever in traditionally male-dominated professions such as medicine, the law, high-tech, finance, and scientific research and development - but sexism, gender stereotyping, and discrimination persists.
For every company or firm that is serious about doing the real work on diversity, there is yet another Sterling where women face a workplace that is toxic and antagonistic towards their very presence and success. This is particularly true in companies where male bonding drives the corporate culture.
While in some cases this discrimination is overt, as with Sterling, it can also be subtle. Ways in which women are held back include:
- Being held to a higher standard than men. This includes not only pressure to dress and look a certain way, but also more scrutiny on performance and even harsher discipline for alleged transgressions.
- Preferential treatment in promotions. Women are frequently passed over for promotion in favor of less qualified men and hit the so-called "glass ceiling."
- Vital contributions that go unrecognized. Women are often given more of the "grunt work" than men, but frequently do not receive the recognition they deserve for their contributions.
- Pay inequity.
- Castigating or denigrating behavior.
- Exclusion from advancement opportunities, including social opportunities.
- Objectification of women, in both nuanced and overt ways.
- Institutionalized discrimination, particularly against older women.
The Importance of Fighting Back
Even though women have made progress, there is obviously still more work to be done. It is important, then, for women to push back and challenge these obstacles. This is the only way to effect lasting change.
The women at Sterling were allegedly punished for speaking out. But, they have banded together as a class to harness a collective power they did not have when acting alone.
Even as individuals, women have many legal options to address a hostile and discriminatory workplace. This may not necessarily mean filing a lawsuit - there are intermediary steps that can be very effective. Often the best way to determine the best course of action is to consult with an experienced employment lawyer who can assess the entirety of a situation, in confidence, and develop a game plan.
Women do not have to put up with going to work every day in situations that threaten their personal happiness and professional success. As Sterling has found out, women, whether acting collectively or as individuals, are a force to be reckoned with.