Fifty Most Powerful Women in Business," a recent Fortune
cover story, confirmed that women have indeed come a long way in the
working world. But gender victimization activists believe the
opposite is true, that rampant, habitual discrimination is the rule
in the workplace, and they are going to great lengths to make their
case with statistics. Reporters should not fall into the trap of
taking such claims at face value.
Discrimination Against Women in Washington State, 1997, recently
published by the Rutgers School of Law in Newark, New Jersey. The
authors, led by Rutgers law professor Alfred W. Blumrosen, contend
that gender discrimination is "regular operating practice" among
private employers in Washington state. (The Ford Foundation is
bankrolling similar studies in all 50 states.) The study concludes
that every fourth private employer in the state intentionally
discriminates against women.
How did the authors arrive
at this number? They did not consider the actual evidence of harm
and examine the outcome of specific charges. Rather, they utilized
probability analysis to simply presume employers’ guilt. The authors
examined the number of women employed in an occupational category
compared to other establishments of its size in the same industry
and geographic area. If the number of women in a job at a particular
company is significantly lower than the average number of women
overall in that job, the authors claim that it is due to intentional
Another study by Catalyst,
a New York-based women’s research organization, used similar methods
to reach a similar conclusion. The 1998 Catalyst Census of Women
Corporate Officers and Top Earners found that women have
achieved neither representational nor compensatory parity with men.
This study counts the Fortune 500's women corporate and line
officers and includes earnings comparisons to male colleagues, but
fails to carefully examine the many variables that affect position
and earnings, such as age, prior experience, performance,
educational attainment, and so forth.
Such studies ultimately
devalue women’s career choices, which are not always geared towards
reaching the corporate boardroom. For example, many women seek
success by establishing their own firms and are fulfilling their
desire for more flexibility and independence. In fact, female-owned
businesses account for one-third of all firms in the United States.
While statistics are
routinely used to support claims of discrimination in the workplace,
they alone do not show intent, and cannot serve as the sole evidence
to determine an employer’s guilt of gender discrimination. The legal
standard requires additional evidence of discriminatory practices,
does not equate accusation with guilt, and offers the accused party
what these studies do not: the opportunity to defend himself or
In the same way, the
parents of a child who receives several injuries over the course of
a year — far more than the average child — are not automatically
guilty of child abuse or neglect. Accompanied by additional
evidence, however, such a case might be proven true. The authors of
these studies attempt to use statistical disparities, which are
often the rule rather than the exception in America, as the sole
arbitrator of discriminatory practices.
According to the U.S. Equal
Employment Opportunity Commission, fewer than one in five sexual
harassment charges results in a meritorious outcome. Of sex-based
charges, about one in eight charges results in a meritorious
outcome. A formal, legal process exists to compensate alleged
victims and protect them from retaliation. The process also punishes
alleged perpetrators and protects them from false claims.
The authors of these two
recent studies use numbers to fit their pre-ordained conclusion that
gender discrimination is rampant in the working world, rather than
the boorish and hostile acts of a few individuals. Far more evidence
is needed to make their case. There is no doubt that gender
discrimination exists, even as we enter the 21st century, and
alerting the public to it is an important task. But reporters have
an enormous responsibility to distinguish between real
discrimination and mere playing by the numbers.
Naomi Lopez is director
of the Center for Enterprise and Opportunity at the Pacific Research
Institute in San Francisco, California.