Gender and the Law Prof Blog

Editor: Tracy A. Thomas
University of Akron School of Law

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Women in Business

We’re hearing a lot about women in business this week. Bank of America settled a $36 million lawsuit by women traders at its Merrill Lynch brokerage claiming gender discrimination from practices favoring men in promotions, client assignments, and other lucrative.  A New York Times front-page exposé uncovered the intractable gender disparities at Harvard Business School.  But why should we feel sorry about these women? (Many of whom at Harvard seem to spend a surprising amount of time thinking about getting their M.R.S.). Why should we be concerned about these elite, privileged women?

 Because business is where the power is. Fundamentally, sex equality is about access to power. It’s the glass ceiling. It’s the old boys’ network perpetuated in the young boys’ network. These scenarios reveal that behind the corporate veil, the power brokers are still men.  Business men involved in the Great Recession with its risky investments, mortgage practices, excessive compensation and bailouts.

 The question is, what to do about it.  The Merrill Lynch settlement threw some money at the women, about $8,000 each.  The company will bring in an applied organizational psychologist to help revise its policies about broker teams and sharing client accounts.  Harvard deans and professors aimed their reforms at the point of entry in the business profession, beginning with the students and classroom.  They mentored female professors, transcribed class discussion to ensure proper subjective credit for comments by women, and offered classes to female students on assertive hand-raising.  European corporate law is starting at the top with gender quotas requiring company boards to have 40% women. As Julie Suk explores, the theory is that women directors offer moderation, consensus, and caution.  The equalized boards offer a structural, systemic reform rather than continuing to focus on individual behavior (think Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins circa 1989).  These reforms seek to change the game, rather than simply asking men to play fair.

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