WorkLife Law Blog

WorkLife Law aims to end Family Responsibilities Discrimination, which is employment discrimination against workers who have family caregiving obligations. It includes discrimination against parents of young children, pregnant women, and workers who have aging or sick parents, spouses, or partners.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006


Fox News Settlement: Examine that Bias!

According to the Washington Post, Fox News has settled sexual harassment charges brought by the EEOC, agreeing to pay four women a total of $225,000.

What caught my eye in this story is one statement allegedly made by Fox News Vice President Joe Chillemi. He apparently said that if he had to choose between hiring a man and a woman, of course he’d hire the man because the woman would just get pregnant and leave.

This type of statement is much more common in today’s workplace than one would believe. It is a manifestation of an unexamined bias many women face – the bias against women who are pregnant or capable of being pregnant based on the untested and unproven idea that men are more desirable as workers because they will stay with a company longer because they don’t have caregiving responsibilities.

But isn’t this idea true? Do we really need to test it?

Not by a long shot. Both sides of the assumption – the assumption about the man and the assumption about the woman – are wrong. First, most women do not stay home after having children. They take maternity leaves, but they return to their jobs. (That is, assuming that they have jobs to return to – a disturbing number of women try to return to work from their maternity leaves only to be told that their jobs are no longer available.) One way to look at this is that the demographic part of the stereotype may be accurate – most women become pregnant at some points in their lives – but the assumption that flows from the demographic that the women will stay home with their children is not accurate.

Second, an increasing number of men do have caregiving responsibilities and need time off from work or need to change jobs so they can have a more flexible schedule. Gen X and Y men want to be involved with their children and be full partners at home, and babyboomer men may need to take care of aging parents or sick spouses. In this side of the assumption, the demographic is changing and the assumption that flows from the demographic is less and less likely to be true.

The damage caused by unexamined bias is shown in the portion of the complaint against Fox News that states that women were assigned to positions with fewer benefits, less advancement potential, and less job security. If one assumes a worker won’t stay long-term, it stands to reason that one would not invest in them or give them the best jobs. This then could start a self-fulfilling prophecy: if the women have undesirable jobs where they see little advancement potential, when they are weighing staying at home against returning to work, returning to work looks a lot less desirable. As WLL’s Joan Williams has stated, this is not “opting out” but being “pushed out.”

The good news about unexamined biases is that they often can be eliminated simply by recognizing them and examining them in light of factual information. The EEOC’s settlement with Fox News includes training on “discrimination law.” Let’s hope it also includes some training on unexamined bias so the root of the problem can be addressed.

-- Cynthia

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