Sixteen women have filed a class action suit against Sterling Jewelers, which owns the Galleria of Jewelry and Kay Jewelers and is the largest retail jewelry company in the country by sales. If the class is certified, about 44,000 current current and former employees could join the case and seek back pay and punitive damages.
The women allege widespread pay, promotional, and other gender discrimination at that range across the country, from New York to Wisconsin to California. Of the 16, 13 say they were paid less than men with the same or lower qualifications, 13 say promotions were doled out to less qualified men, and six experienced sexual harassment, with many experiencing multiple challenges at least two having experienced all three.
At one Belden Jewelers store in Massena, New York, four different women in the suit say they were paid less than Troy Lawler, a man hired in 2005 who had no prior experience in the industry, and were told “that Lawler needed to be paid more than the females because he had a child to support.” He also received promotions even though more qualified women say they indicated their interest in advancing. Kelly Contreras, who worked for Sterling stores from 1993 to 2005 in Madison, Wisconsin, was intimately familiar with the company’s wage discrimination. She and her husband both worked as store managers and had similar industry and company experience, yet he was making $55,000 a year, while she made $35,000. When they both became district managers, he made $10,000 more.
Besides being paid less than less qualified men, Judy Reed, who has worked at Jared stores since 2000, says she has repeatedly been passed over for promotions. Despite the fact that she has more than 30 years of experience in the jewelry industry, including five as an assistant manager for Sterling, she says that she was denied at least four different promotions that well instead to less qualified men.
Sexual harassment also dogged many of these women. Maria House, who worked at a Kay Jewelers in California from 2005 to 2006, she says her assistant manager, Shaun McCullough, “made inappropriate and unwelcome comments about her chest,” including telling her, “I would like to suck on your boobs.” When she reported the behavior, she was told to “stop overreacting and get back to work,” the suit alleges. Another woman, Leighla Murphy, who worked in a New Jersey store in 2004, was followed by her assistant manager into the back room, where he tried to kiss her against her will. When she told her manager, Bernard Phillips, her hours on the schedule dropped significantly and then she was taken off of it entirely. No wonder, perhaps, as she also alleges that Phillips made “disparaging and inappropriate remarks to female employees,” such as telling them to date “strong black” men and disproving of the men they dated.
A Sterling spokesperson told the New York Times, “We believe that the facts show that they are without merit.”
The details outlined in the lawsuit may sound like something out of the Mad Men era, but they are in fact all too common. One in five American women say they have been sexually harassed by a boss. Thirteen percent say they were denied a raise because they are women, while 15 percent say they’ve been denied a promotion for the same reason. Nearly a third say they would be paid more if they were a man. So while there are many factors that go into the gender wage gap — including occupational segregation and women needing to interrupt their careers to care for children and family members — these statistics and the details in the Sterling case show that plain discrimination is still alive and well.
And the company’s practices highlight many of the challenges in the way of making progress. Employees at Sterling stores are barred from discussing their wages with coworkers, so many of the women weren’t even aware for a long time that they were being paid less. That same problem is true for about half of the country’s workers. Managers are also given wide discretion in hiring for open positions and setting salaries, letting their own personal prejudices more easily come into play.
The women in the case may have a tough road ahead of them, however, if recent class action suits over gender discrimination are any guide. The most recent high-profile case was against Walmart. In the Wal-Mart v. Dukes case, more than 1 million accused the retail giant of rampant and systemic gender discrimination, showing statistical evidence that women faced discrimination in the company’s hiring practices, such as the fact that women make up 70 percent of its hourly jobs but just 33 percent of management. But that case was thrown out in 2011 when the Supreme Court ruled they couldn’t bring a class action suit. The women then moved to bring smaller cases, but in August, a federal court in California also tossed out a smaller claim from 150,000 women. But either way, the Sterling case will be handled privately, not in the courts, according to company policy.