Gender Bias - Still Alive and Well at US Jewelers?June 16, 22
The Sterling gender bias case is finally over. It lasted almost 15 years and became "a hallmark of #MeToo activism". The jeweler was accused of "gender discrimination in pay and promotions practices" by a class of 68,000 women who had worked there, mostly as sales associates, from 2004 to 2018. That's a substantial number, considering the company currently has 18,000 employees across all its 1,500 stores.
Their lawyers argued that the company's rules on pay rates adversely affected women and they were promoted far less often than they deserved. But The Washington Post reported allegations that went beyond financial discrimination. It quoted at length from sworn statements women employees had made, claiming they had been "coaxed into providing sexual favors, including at boozy corporate retreats".
Now a line has been drawn. Sterling, part of the Signet empire, announced last Thursday that it had agreed a $175m payment, without any admission of wrongdoing. In doing so it averted a classwide arbitration that could have proved more costly than if employees had pursued individual claims.
The first $50m of the settlement will be swallowed up by attorneys' fees and cost, leaving $125m to be divided between the plaintiffs, an average of $1,838 each. News of the settlement came on the day Signet announced a nine per cent increase in first quarter sales to $1.8bn.
Joseph Sellers, lawyer for the women, acknowleged in a statement issued jointly with Sterling, that the jeweler had undertaken "important and meaningful changes to its workplace policies, which have moved it forward as a leader in gender equality."
Gina Drosos, CEO of Signet Jewelers, thanked her team for "helping to create our welcoming and inclusive environment where everyone is invited to be their authentic self. We believe prioritizing diversity, equity and inclusion grows high-functioning teams and fosters a culture of appreciation and development."
Signet may be acutely aware of the need to tackle gender bias, but what about the jewelry industry as a whole across the US? Here are key findings from research commissioned by the Women's Jewelry Association, established in 1983 to provide networking opportunities for women - at a time when the Twenty-Four Karat Club of the City of New York was still an all-male group (it would not admit women until 1987).
The figures come from its Gender Equality Project survey in 2019, the most recent available research, carried out by The MVEye. And they do not make for easy reading.
Almost half of all the employees said they'd either seen or were aware of gender bias in the workplace, compared with only seven per cent of owners.
Thirty per cent of employees say they've suffered gender bias, but only two per cent of owners say they've received complaints. There appears to be a worrying pattern here of management either failing to engage with the problem, or pretending it doesn't exist.
Other highlights include:
• 50% of employees report being subject to a gender-related hostile work environment (including at trade shows), but only 9% of owners report they have received complaints.
• 38% of participating employees say that they have been affected by gender-related pay disparity, but only 2% of owners say they have received complaints
• 23% of employees say they've experienced sexual harassment, but only 5% of owners report receiving complaints.
• 16% of employees say they have been victims of unwanted sexual advances; but only 3% of employers have received complaints.
The Sterling case could, or should, be a watershed moment. But if the culture across tens of thousands of US jewelry stores is as deeply entrenched as these figures suggest, then it's going to take some shifting. The legal tangles at Sterling - largely over the issue of whether class actions are appropriate for arbitration - dragged the whole thing out for 15 years. The women who complained can now treat themselves to a Kay's sapphire and diamond necklace (1/8 ct tw) and a few slap-up meals for their trouble. And the biggest winners are the lawyers. None of which sounds like a great incentive for change.
Have a fabulous weekend.