Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


In Defense of America’s Working Women

Joanna L. Grossman

Dilek Edwards was fired from her job as a yoga instructor and massage therapist in New York City’s financial district because she was “too cute.”  The practice was owned by Charles Nicolai and his wife, Stephanie Adams. Although Edwards had little contact with Nicolai, and a strictly professional relationship, Adams sent Edwards a threatening, out-of-the-blue text ordering her not to ever step foot in the office again.  Four months earlier, Nicolai had warned Edwards that his wife might become jealous because she was “too cute.”

The shocking part of this case is not that it happened – firings due to spousal jealousy seem surprisingly common – but that a New York judge held the firing did not constitute unlawful sex discrimination.  There is no protection, the court held, for “attractive females” under New York’s antidiscrimination law.  This flouts so many well-established principles of discrimination law that it is hard to recite them all.  But, for starters, it ignores the “sex-plus” doctrine, adopted decades ago by the Supreme Court in a federal antidiscrimination law case, that discrimination against a subset of one sex—in that case, women with preschool age children—is just as illegal as discrimination against the whole sex.  It cannot be the case in 2016 that women can be fired because men can’t stop themselves from touching them—or appease wives who fear they might.  That would be a strange notion of equality indeed.

This case is just one of a thousand reminders that gender continues to pervade every aspect of women’s working lives.  In the comically absurd workplace in the movie Nine to Five, the three female stars are driven to fantasies of murdering their boss, played by Dabney Coleman, after experiencing everything from sexual harassment to pay discrimination to having men steal credit for their work.  But it was only the accidental poisoning of the boss followed by a brief kidnapping that pushed this movie over the line from reality to fiction.  Women today still face discrimination from before they are hired until they collect their last pension check.

My new book, Nine to Five: How Gender, Sex, and Sexuality Continues to Define the American Workplace, is a collection of essays that revolve around contemporary cases and events that reveal the breadth and persistence of sexism and gender stereotyping in the workplace today.  It explores the definition of sex discrimination—raised by cases like Dilek Edwards’s—followed by a comprehensive look at sexual harassment, pregnancy and motherhood discrimination, and finally pay discrimination and the glass ceiling.  Together, the essays suggest a playing field that continues to be uneven, or at least marred with divots, despite a labor force that includes roughly equal numbers of men and women.

The movie audience is immediately tipped off that Dabney Coleman’s character is a sexist pig, when he tries to explain to the new girl his “philosophy of business” as “teamwork,” but quickly lets on that he doesn’t think she or other women will fully understand.  “You girls, of course never got a chance to play football or baseball . . . and I’ve always felt that’s unfortunate, because I think it’s the best place to learn what teamwork is about. . . . [But] [i]f we all work together, we can cut the balls off the competition and be sitting pretty.”  The sexism of the modern workplace might not always be so obvious, but it is just as real.  Layered on top of the studies showing inequality in almost every aspect of work are the experiences of the women whose cases are profiled in this book.  This book is my murderous fantasy, in defense of America’s working women, who deserve better.

About The Author

Joanna L. Grossman

Joanna L. Grossman is the Sidney and Walter Siben Distinguished Professor of Family Law at the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University, New York. An expert in sex disc...

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