We are often inundated with stories about sexual harassment, unequal pay, failure to hire or promote or similar issues. Virtually all of the stories discuss unequal treatment of women–and with good reason. It happens so often. Title VII (and many state laws) however, prohibit employment discrimination based on sex. The law doesn’t limit its protections against sex-based discrimination to women, though. I think most if not all of us recognize, at least in theory, that sex discrimination can and does occur against men, too. This week I want to discuss a real live case example of how sex discrimination can and does work both ways.
The case is Savignac v Jones Day. Here’s what (allegedly) went down:
Mark Savignac and Julia Sheketoff met while clerking for US Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. They also worked together in Jones Day’s Supreme Court and Appellate Practice Group. Mr. Savignac and Ms. Sheketoff are married. Ms. Sheketoff left the firm shortly before giving birth to the couple’s son. They planned to share child care equally. Mr. Savignac complained that the firm’s leave policy provided men 8 weeks’ less time than it did women. Ms. Sheketoff, in contrast allegedly had to take more time off and return to work later than she wanted, also because of the firm’s policy. Jones Day discharged Mr. Savignac 2 weeks after the couple’s son was born and 3 business days after he and Ms. Sheketoff sent the firm an email complaining about the inequities in the firm’s leave policy.
That’s not all though. (You probably guessed that, didn’t you?) Ms. Sheketoff also complained about pay inequity, calling Jones Day’s practices a “black box” compensation system. In her first 2 years at Jones Day Ms. Sheketoff says she received raises of $60,000 and $65,000 respectively. After her third year, however she only received $15,000, while working under a male partner who allegedly favored male attorneys. While she did get a substantial raise the following year –$85,000 to be exact– it was still lower than that of her similarly situated male counterparts, because, according to her, it was “held down” by the prior year’s discriminatory pay. (FYI, Jones Day is facing another pay discrimination lawsuit filed in April by female associates, which attributes the pay practices to the “autocratic” authority of its managing partner, Stephen Brogan.)
Wait. There’s still more. Jones Day allegedly refused to provide customary references for Mr. Savignac after his termination. The firm also allegedly doctored Ms. Sheketoff’s picture to make her skin look lighter and her nose less broad (Ms. Sheketoff is biracial).
So, let’s look at what we’ve got here. We have a case alleging sex discrimination in both directions. In one instance, Jones Day’s employee leave policy is alleged to discriminate against both men and women. Wait, you may be thinking, I understand how it discriminates against men, but how does it discriminate against women? Here’s how: Ms. Sheketoff wanted to come back to work earlier, and allegedly was prevented from doing so, because, according to her, the leave policy was applied in such a way that required her to conform to the firm’s idea of how long a new mother should be out of work. We also have a case alleging pay discrimination, specifically that a male managing partner’s autocratic authority artificially depressed Ms. Sheketoff’s pay because she is a woman. Oh, also let’s not forget a claim (or at least a potential claim) by Mr. Savignac for retaliation. After all, he was fired 2 weeks after the birth of his son and just 3 business days after he and Ms. Sheketoff sent their email to the firm, complaining of its practices.
While to my eye the takeaways can almost write themselves, I don’t want to leave anything to chance, so I’ll end with them anyway. Here they are:
- Re-visit your parental leave policies. If they appear to provide more time off to biological mothers than fathers (even after taking into account the time a mother needs to recover from pregnancy/childbirth) some tweaking is in order–unless you don’t mind risking a lawsuit alleging sex discrimination.
- Periodically review your compensation practices. Look specifically for discrepancies in pay between men and women and minorities and non-minorities performing the same or similar functions. If you see discrepancies for which you cannot find a sound justification, make the necessary adjustments immediately, if not sooner–unless, of course, you don’t mind being sued for pay discrimination.
- Tread lightly if you are thinking of taking any adverse action against an employee (or former employee) that has recently complained of discrimination/harassment or other activity s/he believes to be illegal or unethical. Better yet, don’t do it unless you have a sound justification and you have supporting evidence. Such actions are retaliation. They are illegal under anti-discrimination and other employment laws. In fact, the retaliation alone can trigger a jury verdict even if the employee doesn’t win on the actual discrimination claim.
It will be interesting to see how this case is resolved. If it goes to trial, Mr. Savignac and Ms. Sheketoff will, of course, have to prove their allegations. If they’re wrong, Mr. Savignac’s termination, particularly the timing, is still suspicious, and he may prevail on a retaliation claim. Either way, Jones Day will either have to spend a lot on legal fees or devote its own time and energy if it’s representing itself, to defending what promises to be a contentious lawsuit — along with the other pay discrimination case. (Did I mention that Ms. Sheketoff and Mr Savignac are representing themselves?. I digress. Sorry.) The point is we can learn from this case regardless of the outcome. Start with the takeaways above.
Watch my first of two television interviews on Stop My Crisis with Vivian Gaspar. Contents of this post are for educational/informational purposes only, are not legal advice, and do not create an attorney-client relationship. Consult with competent employment counsel in the state(s) in which you employ people with your specific questions.
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