Protecting Women’s Rights at Work Is Harder than We Hoped

April 11, 2014

The Supreme Court just doesn’t get the modern workplace. First it essentially tells Lilly Ledbetter that her employer had discriminated against her long enough to make it legal. Then it tells Betty Dukes that she can’t team up with other co-workers to take on Wal-Mart for discrimination. And now it’s telling American workers that their bosses may not actually be their bosses.

Last year, the court issued a 5–4 decision that created an artificial distinction between different types of “supervisors,” thereby letting employers off the hook for harassment by lower-level supervisors. Here’s the big problem: The court’s decision doesn’t reflect how people actually work. Millions of workers are overseen by other employees who don’t have the authority to hire or fire them, yet still shape their day-to-day work experience by making their schedules, giving them time off, or assigning projects and tasks. This wrong-headed court decision virtually gives a green light to sexual harassment as long as it doesn’t come from “the boss.”

Help protect the rights of women in the workplace.

Lady Justice

Under that 2013 ruling, Vance v. Ball State University, this overseeing type of employee is now classified as a co-worker, making it more difficult to hold employers legally accountable for sexual harassment perpetuated by those employees — no matter how much power they might have over other workers. This decision is particularly problematic for women: A national poll found that 25 percent of women have experienced workplace sexual harassment, as have 1 in 10 men.

Think about your own experiences at work. You knew who set your schedule and gave you assignments, but did you know who could make the decision to fire you? Was it your direct boss? Was it the human resources manager? Was it the company president who you met only once? Under the court’s standard, if your boss doesn’t have the power to fire you, she or he isn’t considered your “supervisor.” And that’s just silly.

AAUW supports congressional action to rectify this wrong decision. The Fair Employment Protection Act would restore longstanding workplace protections the Vance ruling took away. You can tell your representatives to support this legislation today.

In addition to action from Congress, there are also the courts. The AAUW Legal Advocacy Fund works to challenge sex discrimination in higher education and the workplace. The Vance decision means that LAF’s work is needed more than ever. You can support that work by holding educational events or hosting speakers in your community. You can also use LAF’s resources to learn more about your rights at work.



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