Thursday, March 20, 2008

How Did We Get Here?

Fifteen women filed a lawsuit this week in the US District Court, Southern District of New York, alleging discrimination in salaries and lack of promotional opportunities at Sterling Jewelers Inc. (owner of Kay, Jared, JB Robinson and Belden Jewelers, with store outlets at major American malls everywhere). The women requested class action status for 20,000 women workers whom they argue were denied advancement opportunities from February 27, 2003 to date.

How did we get here? As University of Chicago economist Gary Becker said, this “is part of a strong trend toward shifting responsibility to others.” Of course, Professor Becker was talking about the housing crisis, the mortgage meltdown and the prayer for relief from every corner of the sub-prime marketplace – earned and deserved or otherwise.

How did we get to this “someone, please bail me out" mentality?

In talking with women in leadership, there’s a concern that we have not come further today after at least 30 years of women pushing the envelop of economic opportunity. Why do research studies persist in suggesting that women have reached this asymptotic plateau of progress after such promising initiatives decades ago? Why, in other words, are we still seeing women believing that anti-discrimination law suits before the EEOC will get them the compensation they have earned on the job, performing as a peer employee?

Does anyone remember or know what happened to the Betty Duke case against WalMart for exactly the same arguments, using exactly that same recourse? The law suit was filed June 19, 2001 – almost 7 years ago. WalMart recently reported its best of three successively outstanding sales years.

Many women will come flailing at me, arguing that I should “Stop blaming the victim” as I question the effectiveness of the class action lawsuit in achieving equal opportunities for women’s advancement. I want women to succeed as much as my female peers. It’s just that I’m beginning to question the methodologies that don’t reap the desired benefits.

When exactly did these 15 women realize they were working in a biased, prejudicial and discriminatory workplace? Many of them were employed by the jeweler for 10, 15, 20 and 25 years. Did it all just happen February 28th, five years ago? Doubtful.

But, perhaps prior to that year, the women who filled out employment forms at Kay and Jared were like many of their female peers: mostly interested in just a little part-time job at a neighborhood mall outlet where maybe they could get an occasional employee discount. Or perhaps, the new hires wanted the flexibility of being close to home to tend their families. These stores, being located at every mall in suburbia, would be a perfect choice. Oh my, and a discount on jewelry too? Who could resist?

So, up until February 2003, thousands of women filled in application forms and accepted salaries and positions as customer sales associates which exactly, precisely, and accurately matched their demand profiles for employment. More and more women came in the front doors of Kay and Jared and accepted the deal: work at not so great salaries, but get discounting of store merchandise, flexibility of hours, etc.

Everyone was happy with the arrangement until That Woman arrived on the scene: “The Woman At The Margin.” She was the one with an alternative, the woman with a next best economic opportunity to consider. Perhaps she had four years of a college education. Perhaps she even had a couple of years of post graduate studies. Whatever it was, she had a different sense of her value in the marketplace than her predecessor applicants. The Woman At The Margin was not going to accept the lowest possible bid. She perceived that there were other and better choices for her to consider in the marketplace.

Economic opportunities abound today for educated and informed women to compare their value. The Woman At The Margin is the latest one to fill in that employment form at Kay or Jared Jewelers. She is insisting on full 100% compensation and full 100% promotional opportunities – just like her male peers and unlike many of her female predecessors.

All women are entitled to a work environment which is neither hostile nor hazardous. Working with sexist pigs should not be tolerated under any circumstances. No question about that. That part of the lawsuit may stand on its own merits. That may be all that is of merit.

The other parts of the case raise serious questions about how women approached salary and promotional status at Sterling. Employees roughly made $9 an hour as an entry sales associate, $12 an hour as mid-level assistant managers and $15 an hour as senior management. With 20,000 employees at 1,300 stores, that’s roughly 15 people per store on average: maybe one top manager, two shift management leaders and two teams of six people each.

It’s not as if we’re talking about keeping salary information hidden among hundreds of thousands of complex worker categories at a major operation. Why couldn’t the women find out what 5 other people on her shift were making? Because Sterling prohibited them from talking about salary, prohibited management from publishing promotional opportunities, and failed to announce new postings. Wow!

The women consistently were top sellers. They received bonuses (unquantified in the lawsuit, of course), special merit trips as rewards for sales, membership in Presidents’ Club for top performance. The women were “paid off” in several ways that recognized, rewarded, and incentivized them to perform as expected. An in addition there were those employee jewelry discounts on top of all that. Often the women, once promoted to management, appeared willing to take on the work of two people as part of being a “good soldier.”

So, the company kept playing its little game of taking advantage of innocent and naïve employees. And the women kept themselves innocent and naïve.

Let’s also remember, for Kay and for WalMart lawsuits alike, who precisely ensures that these companies are as financially successful as they are? It is the very same women who constitute 85-90% of the consumer marketplace for jewelry and for all of WalMart’s merchandise. Women consumers are making the bed in which they ultimately must sleep as workers.

Until The Woman At The Margin showed up and expected more than merely $15 an hour compensation for over 20 years of experience, that is.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Women in IT

Eric Chabrow, Editor of the magazine CIO Insight (Ziff Davis Enterprise), responded to my letter of concern that their magazine gives short shrift to the very large number of talented women working at top leadership roles of IT organizations.

In response, he cited several of the magazine’s recent articles over the past year, “in print, online and video about women in IT, including a major feature entitled Behind the Decline in Women in IT.” The links are contained below.

He still doesn’t “get it.” Writing about women in leadership is NOT equal to writing about “why [some] women opt out, quit, fail to aspire.” Writing about women in IT leadership IS writing about women who are at the top of IT organizations and how they succeeded.

One very interesting item from the array of research was that fact that there is a higher percentage of women CIOs at top Fortune corporations compared to the percentage of CEOs, CFOs, or General Counsels. More women came to top corporate board roles by rising up the corporate technology ladder, today, than by any other career pathway.

More women CIOs may result from companies tapping top IT talent from a broader resource pool: technology users in marketing, operations, manufacturing tend to have a broader view of the corporation than nerds who are more comfortable writing and debugging software subroutines. We don’t promote people to leadership positions from cheap, imported, IT programmer labor pools.

But, Mr. Chabrow is really more interested in why women are NOT among the hordes of drone software programmers, today. Perhaps it is because being a software programmer or engineer used to be like sport fishing – exciting, challenging, out on the unfettered seas of opportunity. Today, it’s a job more akin to stuffing tuna parts into cans. It is work that only imported cheap “special visa workers” from Eastern Europe aspire to perform. Today, technical support work is so mindlessly boring that only low income overseas labor finds it interesting. Maybe women are smart to avoid competing with the lower income levels.

Why did hordes of women leave IT from the years 2000 through 2005, as indicated by the research cited below? Perhaps it was due to the entire bust and venture capital wipe-out that occurred precisely during that very same period. Maybe women moved out of the strict confines of IT (software programmer) and migrated over to the more financially successful IT ultimate customer marketplace (securities analyst, investment advisor, etc.) Maybe women are smarter than we have given them credit.

And, as AnnaLee Saxenian, Dean of the School of Information at UC Berkeley has pointed out in her studies of the Silicon Valley labor marketplace, much of the entrepreneurial labor pool in the US is now foreign born, who undoubtedly look to their own talent pool as an employment resource.

Lots of reasons, lots of research opportunities, Mr. Chabrow. Try to think differently.


    Links provided by: Eric Chabrow, Editor of CIO Insight
  • Monday, March 10, 2008

    Free (?) Goods

    The idea that we really believe it’s possible to have “free goods,” such as downloaded music or videos, go on forever concerns me as an economist who learned somewhere back in the dark ages that water and air were only “free goods” if you ignored externalities like pollution or deserts or the imbedded costs of agriculture.

    I seem to remember being taught to ask the question, “What IS the value of every asset?”

    Free, huh? How about the consequences of society “taking” everything it can, now, while the getting is good?

    The lessons of salmon and other over-utilized/over-demanded resources tell us a great deal about what we can expect in our future. The lessons of Easter Island statuary are equally meaningful. Once we begin going down that slippery slope of using resources indiscriminately, without regard for the potential scarcity of that resource or the value of that asset being consumed over time, then we start digging our own grave. We start eating our own seed.

    So, downloaded music is a “free good.” And who perchance will be producing high quality music in the future once we all have decided that those who produce music deserve not to be compensated for his/her time and creativity? What will be your “day job,” music-creator, if you are not compensated on the music-creating stage?

    Downloading videos are a “free good,” you say? And how many independent film creators will stay in business once we all have our 16 to 20 hours of video clips daily on our personal computers? How will you earn enough to pay for food, room, board? Or will you simply hang out at Mom and Dad’s?

    Who needs writers anyway, when content is a “free good” for everyone? Why bother with a Writers’ Guild contract about “digital residuals” if we are all downloading it off the Internet without attribution. Who’d be dumb enough to create written works?

    Oh, but the advertising will pay for it all, you say? Advertising only works if someone points, clicks and pays. Why should we pay? Isn’t it all supposed to be “free goods?”

    What is the difference between the taking of an asset like music, video, content off the web and taking away someone’s valuable asset such as a home – through a mortgage scam like sub-prime loans well outside of the reasonable ability of a “home consumer” to pay? Why not take an asset like a high risk sub-prime loan and repackage it as “securitized” loans with zero inherent value, but copious servicer-fees? Isn’t it all the same gratuitous “taking it for yourself,” now while the getting is good?

    Why should we care? Why shouldn’t we take what is supposed to be “OUR free goods?”