‘Her Tools Were Soaked in Urine’: Inside the Ugly World of Workplace Sex Discrimination

6788494881_cc2c033348_zThe interview below is part of the Ms. Blog’s “Telling Her Story” series for Women’s History Month. Check back throughout March for more profiles of women doing great things in their communities.

“I think they should be as famous as Anita Hill,” says Gillian Thomas of the women she profiles in her new book, Because of Sex: One Law, Ten Cases, and Fifty Years That Changed American Women’s Lives at Work.

The law is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned sex discrimination in the workplace. And the 10 cases are precedent-setting Supreme Court decisions from 1971 to 2015 that have revolutionized the workplace for women in the United States.

Thomas, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU Women’s Rights Project who has also worked at Legal Momentum and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, found herself referring to these cases time and again when arguing sex discrimination cases, so she sought out the women pioneers at the heart of the cases to profile them.

Her book overflows with “I can’t believe he really said that” stories and “head-shaking” moments—stories that would be unbelievable if they weren’t true: companies refusing to hire mothers with preschool-age children; discriminatory pension plans; incidents of sexual harassment; fetal protection policies; forcing pregnant women to go on unpaid leave; and a woman denied partnership at a Big Eight accounting firm because she was too “macho” and “needed a course in charm school.”

Gillian Thomas

But the book is also full of strong women and their attorneys who fought back—and won. I asked Thomas about the clients who inspired her to write the book and what she learned from talking to the people involved in these historic cases.

Much of your life’s work, especially at Legal Momentum and the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, has focused on fighting sex discrimination. What initially inspired you to do this work?

It’s the clients. The clients’ stories were so compelling. The issues and barriers they faced were so distinct. In the very first few years when I was practicing employment law in Philadelphia, there was a woman who had been an anchorwoman back in the 1970s. She was African American, and by the time we were representing her she was in her 50s. She’d slowly but surely been pushed off the air. All the anchors were white, older men and the lowest-paid person was this African American woman. That sense of invisibility and wanting to be seen and not being seen, and feeling like I had some power to help her, is what really made me passionate.

In your book you tell about the strong women behind those 10 historic cases. Can you tell me about a client you’ve represented that’s shown this sort of strength?

There are a lot of them. At Legal Momentum, I worked with women in nontraditional jobs—women in male-dominated fields like construction and fire-fighting and police work. I had one client who worked for a large public utility and had worked her way up from being someone who worked down in manholes to someone who was a supervisor. She’s smart, she’s funny, she’s dedicated, she’s a single parent with a special-needs son. She was down at ground zero after 9/11 and has some health effects as a result of that. She tried over and over to be promoted to a higher-level supervisor and it never happened for her, even though she was on this company’s website as one of their poster girls for success as a woman in this male-dominated field. She went for a promotional interview and found out from one of the male candidates that he’d been given the questions in advance. Another time she was told that the leave she took after 9/11 to deal with the health effects [was] being used against her and that she had too many absences to get promoted.

Through her, I discovered a lot of other issues with women at this company and ended up filing an EEOC charge on my client’s behalf, but the EEOC expanded it into an investigation of class-wide problems at Con Edison. Just this past year they issued notice of a huge multimillion-dollar settlement. But her case was not resolved as part of the settlement and she’s been forced to go to trial. We filed her EEOC charge in 2007 and she’s still waiting for justice. She is continuing to fight for her rights. She’s one of the people I think of the most.

Any woman who has been the only woman in a firehouse or the only woman in her local police precinct goes through things that none of us can appreciate. I had a client who was an auto mechanic, the only woman out of a 200-person workforce working out at JFK airport, and she came to work one day and her tools were soaked in urine. It’s just a world out there that most of us who are lucky don’t have to deal with. So those are the women I think of when I do this work and when I was writing this book.

Based on your experience talking to people involved in these historical cases and litigating current cases, do you see progress being made?

Definitely. This book was intended to be a celebration of how far we’ve come. There is some value in remembering that this used to be so much worse. Before Title VII, there were very few women cops or firefighters. Because of these cases, we have an architecture to challenge requirements that disproportionately keep women out or remove a pregnant police officer from her job just assuming it would be too dangerous for her.

We have a lot of persistent entrenched problems in certain industries, like the client I mentioned with the urine, it might as well have been 1964 for her. But the difference is that she could go get a lawyer and there was a law and precedent that could help her.

I wrote this book to celebrate that progress and how these problems are out in the open and there is a vocabulary and infrastructure for challenging them, but we have new problems and we have some problems that just don’t go away, like bias against mothers and pregnant women, like sexual harassment, like stereotypes that women can’t or shouldn’t do certain jobs.

What are some of the biggest challenges for women in the workplace right now?

Pregnancy and motherhood remain the most consistent barrier, whether you are a low-wage worker at McDonald’s or at a Fortune 500 company. The bias is that once you are pregnant, you are unreliable. Studies show motherhood derails women and depresses their pay. The ACLU is targeting the issue of accommodating pregnancy when it does interfere with a job. Employers are struggling with what to do when a pregnant women who needs an accommodation—and they keep getting it wrong, time and again. So we’re trying to build positive case law that defines what employers’ obligations are in terms of accommodating pregnancy. Another challenge is expanding Title VII to cover LGBT discrimination.

What is your biggest achievement?

My biggest accomplishment is this book—telling these stories and getting them out here. I think [the women who brought these cases] should be as famous as Anita Hill. I wanted to pay tribute to these women who made my career possible as a lawyer and as a woman coming of age in the 1980s personally and in terms of what they contributed to the law and what they contributed in terms of helping millions of women who have never heard of them or heard of Title VII.

Opening photo courtesy of Flickr user Erich Ferdinand licensed under Creative Commons 2.0


Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the Sylvia Dlugasch Bauman professor of American Studies and the chair of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. She is a contributing editor at Ms. magazine. You can contact Dr. Baker at cbaker@msmagazine.com or follow her on Twitter @CarrieNBaker.