Realities For Regular Working Women Who Take Grievances to HR
Lay women rarely see any retribution after they speak up about discrimination in the workplace
Ah, the lawsuit win heard round the nation.
Former Pinterest COO Francoise Brougher won a settlement against the company for gender discrimination and retaliation.
Unfortunately, her case is a symptom of a problem that reaches wide and deep for many women in the workplace. These women’s problems go unheard and unsolved everyday, year after year, across workplaces in the US. Neither are these problems solved equally or as richly as Brougher's was.
For every company publicly being held accountable, there are multiple companies whose HR departments go to great lengths to cover up discrimination, harassment, and retaliation, and now using the pandemic as a reason to get rid of employees who speak up, sighting layoffs.
For every company with an HR department taking a stand for a #peopleculture, there are multiple companies who take advantage of dire situations, like an economic lull, to get away with mistreating employees knowing these employees are ultimately stuck between a rock and a hard place.
For every female in a C level position who speaks out against gender discrimination and sexual harassment, there are multiple women in C level positions who do not speak out, who look the other way when bad behavior is observed, and who reinforce toxic workplaces because they do not want to lose their own seats of power. These women operate under the “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” mentality or “this is the way things are for women” mentality or “if I can endure it and succeed, so can you” mentality.
I know all of the above because I’ve experienced the discrimination, the retaliation, the toxicity, etc. multiple times, as a woman in the workplace for over a decade in various organizations of various sizes.
I know this because I’ve witnessed colleagues be mistreated, go to HR, and have squat done about the behaviors or, worse, be put on performance improvement plans (PIPs) for saying anything at all.
I know this because I have female friends that tell me about their own disturbing workplace experiences when they just cannot keep the “everything’s great! I love my job! It’s perfect!” facade any longer because that is what is expected of the working women of Austin, Texas. The booming Silicon Hills with its reputation of being a perfect blend of economic growth and liberal inclusivity. As if we are all too afraid to be the one that forces others to take off the rose colored glasses about the state of women working in the tech companies that are bringing so much financial stability and popularity to our city.
Then, there are people’s responses to women’s experiences once, or if, they start talking.
- “Don’t say anything. You don’t want it to get worse.”
- “Keep your head down and nothing bad will happen to you.”
- “Don’t get involved in someone else’s problem. It’s not gonna turn out good for them and you don’t want your name attached when it all goes down.”
- “Maybe your (male) boss just doesn’t like you.” (And that’s why you don’t get the raise, the promotion, the bonus like your male colleagues.)
- “Maybe you’re not as good at your job as you think you are.” (And that’s why you are ignored for special projects, yelled at, given the office housework, unlike your male colleagues.)
- “You are imagining it.”
- “What are you doing that is causing your (male) superior to act this way towards you?”
- “Have you thought about adapting a better (i.e. feminine) communication style with your (sexist) boss?”
- “Why do you dress nice for work if you don’t want someone to comment on how you look?”
- “Why would you negotiate an offer? You should be glad they made you one to begin with.”
- “It happens to all of us, just live with it.”
- “You should just be happy you have job.”
- “Your (sexist) boss is just old school that way.”
- “Why don’t you just get a new job?” (As if it’s as easy as placing an order on Amazon.)
To have to say that these responses, along with the experiences resulting in these responses, are belittling and demoralizing feels akin to having to state that grass is green and skies are blue.
What happens when these women speak up? In Brougher’s situation with Pinterest, she was fired. This is the feared and real outcome for many women, and largely why they hold back on speaking up in the first place. What can they do now? What real set of actions can they take when they’ve just lost their livelihood?
Everyone says file an EEOC claim. An EEOC claim is also the first step needed to sue the employer. A fine first step to take, unless, during said firing, the employee is coerced into signing away their rights to file a claim in order to obtain a measly severance package for their (illegal) firing. This is absolutely a tactic employed by toxic organizations. But I digress, action equals file a claim. I don’t know about other states, but personal experience shows the waiting periods in Texas to speak with an EEOC investigator are months out. Months! And a claim must be filed within a certain time frame after the last incident occurred. I live in Austin, the state capital, a just-shy-of-population-1-million and growing-at-169-people-per-day city. The nearest EEOC office? In San Antonio. This is my available option in terms of action I can take against my employer: I can put my name on the list and an investigator from San Antonio will call me in several months.
My goodness, what does a woman in a small town have to do before she can get the government’s stamp of approval to sue her employer for illegal termination? I guarantee she’s got much more immediate issues to deal with, like getting her next paycheck to keep food on the table, than trying to locate and visit her nearest EEOC office from The Middle. Which, mind you, is one of the reasons she signed for her severance agreeing to take the blame for termination and relinquish her future rights; she needs whatever immediate money she can get hers hands on to keep the bills paid now that her employer, protected by HR, has pulled the employment rug out from under her.
Let’s say she does have the wherewithal during her termination to not sign away rights, financial security, and patience to go the EEOC route, and wait to speak to an investigator and wait for them to perform the investigation and wait for them to determine an outcome: she’s got her approval to sue her employer. Now what? She must ask herself: Can she afford to speak with an attorney, much less pay for their services when, and if, they go to court or mediation? Does she have the accrued time away from her new employer (fingers crossed she got one, you know, it being so easy like placing an Amazon order and all) to visit the attorney, attend mediation, court, etc? Also, what does suing her employer mean for her career, or her next job, that job she needs immediately to keep the food on the table, the bills paid? She’ll likely be warned by her attorney and her well-meaning friends and family that if she wants to get another job, suing your employer doesn’t look good on your resume!
It’s all a long guessing game. Women have to take huge risks in following through with each step of speaking up, from the moment they knock on the door of their HR rep to the moment they sign their attorney’s contract. And all this risk is weighed against their realities. Their career, their mortgage, their livelihoods, their kids’ livelihoods.
It’s a mountain they climb alone with quieter than a whisper of hope that anything in their favor will be determined in the outcome.
This is the sad reality for the lay woman who speaks up about her treatment at work. The reality that many companies know and count on when their HR department gets wind of misdeeds in the office.
This woman is probably not from the C suite with the means and the background to take her company to court, like Brougher could. She probably has little knowledge of her actual rights, she just knows how she is treated or what she has witnessed is wrong. But the minute she starts asking around about her options, many people, well-meaning or intentional, will make her fully aware of her rights juxtaposed to her realities, and the messages boil down to one theme: it’s not worth it. Back to the warnings, only this one says the employer has all the time and power.
People across all levels of an organization, not just those in positions of management, must not only be made aware of their rights but have availability to the resources necessary to protect and fight for their rights.
I don’t write all this as a dig to Brougher or to belittle her situation or case. Quite opposite! I sympathize what this woman had to endure in regards to gender discrimination and retaliation. I am thrilled she won her lawsuit. Her victory is a victory for women in the workplace.
I am happy her case is drawing nationwide coverage, showing a popular brand taking ownership, however begrudgingly and legally forced, for their mistreatment of employees, particularly their women employees.
I hope highlighting the uncommon scenarios like Brougher’s - a high-profile lawsuit going to court plus a favorable outcome - forces a spotlight on the much more common scenarios regular employees endure in the same situations of gender discrimination and retaliation.
I hope, when women in the bottom of the organization speak up about how they are treated by their colleagues and managers, their HR department will think twice, think four times, about disregarding her grievances, feeling the fear of a $22.5 million settlement against them should they choose to quiet her.
It did not happen for me, but I hope it will happen for another woman - nay, women - not a member of the C-suite.