At a time when work, workers and the workplace are “job one” for the struggling U.S. economy, it’s discouraging to find out that the nation just can’t get serious about taking half of its workforce seriously. The female half.
I’m referring to Wednesday’s court decision in which U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska dismissed a class-action discrimination suit by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against financial services corporation Bloomberg L.P. Preska ruled that there was not sufficient statistical evidence that Bloomberg women employees who became pregnant between 2002 and 2009 were later demoted or paid less than workers who took other types of leaves.
Working moms just can’t get a break. First the Supreme Court ruled in the Wal-Mart class-action suit that the number of women alleging discrimination was too big. Now a U.S. District Court in Manhattan rules that the group of Bloomberg claimants was too small to prove that pregnancy discrimination was “standard operating procedure.”
On dismissing the lawsuit, Judge Preska waded into the work-life debate when she quoted Jack Welch (former chief executive of G.E.) saying, “There’s no such thing as work-life balance. There are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences.” In other words, people who decide to spend time giving birth, recovering and breastfeeding might not advance as quickly as the guy who doesn’t stop to breathe.
Did she say “Jack Welch”? Yes, he was a business icon at one time. His leadership was heralded at Harvard Business School in the early ’80s. But his reign in the world of influential ideas was then and this is now. Right now the U.S. faces global competition in the supply of manufacturing and service products on a scale and scope we’ve not seen before. We can no longer afford to dismiss half of our human resource capital because it happens to be female and sometimes bear children. G.E., Bloomberg, Wal-Mart and other giants need involved and committed women employees (even after they become mothers, no less), to remain competitive. This is not a new idea, but the Bloomberg case’s reasoning and citing of a business dinosaur reminds us that business culture still has far to develop.
As a society, we don’t want organizations filled with only guys (and gals) who don’t stop to breathe. Judge Preska said, “The law does not require companies to ignore or stop valuing ultimate dedication, however unhealthy that may be for family life.” The “law” does not require this of companies, but we as workers, consumers and citizens need to require it. If this is all to be left to the free market, as the ruling promotes, then let’s not shop and work at places that are hostile to working women, babies and families. For now, this may be the way to nudge business toward more social responsibility, particularly making workplaces more family friendly. Business firms, too, have to see that work-life choices have consequences.
Photo of Bloomberg Tower in New York City from Wikimedia Commons