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Rice Law Office Blog

This blog reviews important legal issues including: personal injury, employee compensation, workers compensation, discrimination and wrongful termination.

Gender and Marital Status Discrimination is Alive and Well in the World of Hiring

I recently read an article on LinkedIn by a recruiter, Bruce Hurwitz, entitled "When interviewing for a job, lose the ring!"

From his bio, he is clearly a well respected leader in his field and his article caught my eye first because it touched on my areas of practice in plaintiff employment law, but it also struck me in a more personal way.  I’ve linked his article so you can read it for yourself, but for me, as a married working woman and a mom to three optimistic initiates to the workforce, it was sad to hear this kind of advice being given to people starting out, so I’d like to offer another perspective. 

You see, when I graduated from law school, this was common advice-- which I promptly ignored. Not only were we, as future female attorneys, told to take off our wedding rings for the interviewing process, but I had some friends who were actually told to start this practice well before the interviewing season, in order to avoid a ring tan line. Yes, seriously. None of our male classmates were giving this advice. In fact, I suspect if they had asked, the advice would have been to the contrary. Most likely, where gender stereotypes prevail, wearing a ring might be considered a positive thing for a young male. 

Let's face it, this advice was entirely based on prominent stereotypes about gender, marital status, and the assumed impact of these things on performance in the workplace. The assumption was engaged or married females would somehow be less committed, productive or dedicated to their job. Likewise, married male attorneys would benefit from this institution, creating greater stability and a desire to earn more to support their growing family. The assumption was that marriage meant babies, distraction and a decrease in quality and quantity of legal output when it came to women. By comparison, no one considered that fathers might choose to take time off or seek the dreaded "balance" in their work and family life. Instead, there was a bold assumption that men would work on, without distraction when and if babies came into the picture.

Back then, I took the truth of this advice for granted. I assumed that many if not most of the firms with which I interviewed, would judge me in some manner, probably to the negative, if I were to interview wearing my wedding band. (I will note, no one ever mentioned the size of the "rock" as also being intimidating to women or potentially belittling to my character even back then). While I acknowledged the fact of prejudice, I was not willing to hide my truth to avoid the consequence of it. Perhaps I was naive (I was), but despite being young and unsure of myself in many ways, I was clear about one thing; I didn't want to work for a firm that would hire me (or not hire me) on the basis of my marital status. I chose to marry, I had the right to marry (as many did not back then) and I was happy with my choice. 

So I wore my ring and more than that, I announced my the truth of my personal life on my cover letter.  I didn’t hide that I was married or that I had given birth to twins while attending law school.  Instead, I promoted that fact as proof of my ability to multi-task and meet any challenge I set my mind to. Let me pause to say, that was my path and not right for everyone. Now and then I was aware of those who tried to do it all perfectly and suffered for it.  However, in my case, I had a great team, a bit of luck in genetics and life and I found I was never more focused or productive then after having children.  They helped align my priorities and focus my efforts toward what I really wanted.  They made me a better attorney.  Knowing this, I wanted any potential employer to know that my husband and my children were a priority to me, and that I had managed to maintain that priority while still achieving top grades, membership to prestigious academic Boards, and while earning a clerkship and competitive internships. This was who I was, and I wanted my employers to know that. I worked hard, I played hard, and family values were at the heart of my success.

Now, years later clients often ask "can I be fired if... ", and then recite some protected act, such as filing a Workers’ Compensation claim, or for being in a protected class such as being married, gay, pregnant or female, (all protected here in NH by the way). My answer is a sad, but honest "yes, you CAN be, but it's illegal". The fact is, people can do stupid, bigoted and illegal things and trust me, they will. I make a great living holding these folks accountable. Therefore, at least for now, I must acknowledge that the question is not whether or not people may treat you differently because of your race, religion, nationality, gender, marital status, sexual orientation, veteran status, disability etc. etc., because some will. No, for now, the real question is how we choose to respond. My answer to those who would consider taking off their ring is that you have a choice: you can accept bigotry in all its forms, or you can fight it. 

Mr. Hurwitz tells us we should acknowledge this bigotry about marital status and gender and adjust our behavior accordingly to avoid its consequence. The problem is, not only does this response allow this prejudice to go on because of lack of opposition, but it actually perpetuates these bigoted perceptions about ring size and marital status being in any way related to work performance. More, his comment that a large ring on the finger of a female candidate makes their potential female coworkers fear they will be inferior by comparison, is insulting to us all. We are not as a gender, obsessed with size and for those who would find their value as human being in the size of their material possessions or status granted by nature, I am sorry for you because there are so many better things to value and strive for.

In recent years, I have seen young attorneys, both male and female, make different decisions about starting a family and how they will balance that decision with work untethered by gender stereotype. Both men and women are in increasing numbers taking on changing roles in family and child rearing which refute outdated stereotypes. I watched with some bemusement, joy and not a small amount of jealousy as new male associates took time off to go to their babies’ first doctor’s appointment and did so without apparent fear of judgment.  I recalled wistfully how worried I was by comparison as I sought to take time with my kids twenty years ago.  We have a ways to go as statistics tell us, but we have come a long way in my estimation, and I hope those of us who are now in the position to mentor do not take Mr. Hurwitz’ approach to counseling those entering the workforce. 

Sure, marital status and family status may impact the way in which attorneys choose to approach work, but it is not based on gender, it is based on individual priorities and choices about how best to achieve those priorities. This is neither a male nor female act, but a human decision. 

Here in New Hampshire, I’m so proud of our long tradition of leading the way in employee protection when it comes to discrimination.  We offered equal rights to workers regardless of marital status, pregnancy and “sexual orientation” long before most other states.  (see NH RSA 281A). In the state of New Hampshire, employers are not permitted to engage in discriminatory hiring, make decisions about employment retention or about termination based upon assumptions and stereotypes regarding  marital status or gender. That said, it happens. Therefore, the rest of us can either quietly allow it to go on by ignoring it, by reinforcing  it by altering our own behavior, or we can take a different tact and stand up to these erroneous stereotypes and bigoted beliefs.  Don't get me wrong, there is always a cost to standing up for what you believe in. There will be those I have no doubt, who will still judge you and deny you equal opportunity because of who you are. But I say to you, don't change your behavior because of that. I can't or won't change the immutable characteristics of who I am, some of which invite bigots to judge me unfairly. What I do instead is to choose not to reward those who would so judge me by giving them my services, my treasure or my time. There are many employers out there who will hire you because of who you are, exactly as you are and every one of us should strive to be employed by someone like that. If you begin your employment by hiding who you are in order to get the job, you will have to hide who you are every day Not only will you be miserable, but you will be doing a disservice to your employer.

Don't get me wrong, there is always a cost to standing up for what you believe in. There will be those I have no doubt, who will still judge you and deny you equal opportunity because of who you are. But I say to you, don't change your behavior because of that. I can't or won't change the immutable characteristics of who I am, some of which invite bigots to judge me unfairly. What I do instead is to choose not to reward those who would so judge me by giving them my services, my treasure or my time. There are many employers out there who will hire you because of who you are, exactly as you are and every one of us should strive to be employed by someone like that. If you begin your employment by hiding who you are in order to get the job, you will have to hide who you are every day Not only will you be miserable, but you will be doing a disservice to your employer.

I would be remiss if I didn't say that for those candidates who are not hired on the basis of gender, marital status or some other protected status under the law, your other choice is to bring suit against those offending employers. The reality is, it is often difficult to prove why you were not brought back for that second interview or hired. Most employers don't document or articulate their biases, making failure to hire cases quite difficult to bring. However, even if that method of fighting bigotry is not available to you, there are other ways to speak out and stand up.

For me, 20 years ago the answer was to wear my wedding ring proudly. Today, it is to tell others who might read Mr. Horowitz's article and consider hiding who they are in order to get a job, that they have another choice. You can choose to be exactly who you are and to be confident in knowing that is more than enough. Employment is as much about choosing your employer as your employer choosing you, and while they are judging you, perhaps you should be assessing and judging them to consider whether they deserve you in their workplace.

A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania with degrees from the college and Wharton school of business, Attorney Rice earned her JD from the University of Connecticut while raising her family. She moved back to her home state of NH where she has proudly fought for employee rights in the areas of Employment law, Injury and Workers’ Compensation for nearly 20 years.  She can be reached at:

Rice Law Office

486 Union Avenue

Laconia, NH

603-528-5299

http://www.ricelaw-office.com/ 

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