Thompson v. North American Stainless

Posted on January 25, 2011 by


The U.S. Supreme Court held yesterday that North American Stainless violated federal law by firing Eric L. Johnson after his fiancée, Miriam Regalado, filed a sexual discrimination suit against the company. Federal law prohibits an employer from firing an employee in retaliation for an employee discrimination filing. In its unanimous decision, the Court essentially found that firing someone closely connected to the discrimination suit violates the law against retaliatory firing even if the person fired is not the instigator of the suit herself.

At the root of this case is Ms. Regalado’s claim that North American Stainless violated her rights by paying her less than her male colleagues and “demoting her because of her gender.” Are expensive sexual discrimination lawsuits really a good way to encourage companies to hire, promote, and pay high salaries to women? Not really, no.

If North American Stainless does have a policy of demoting and underpaying women for no reason other than a malicious bias against their sex, the company will suffer for that policy. Any company that undervalues its employees will eventually find itself left with the middling and the mediocre. I understand that’s probably not much comfort to Ms. Regalado right now, who may not have the resources or inclination to search for alternative employment. But the government doesn’t give us our jobs; our employers give us our jobs. If your employer pays you less than you think you deserve–whether it’s because you’re a woman, or because of the way you talk or dress–that’s painful, to be sure; but is it something the government should fix?

And in any case, if North American Stainless does have a bias against women, it may not be a malicious bias: Maybe the company pays women in certain positions less because women in those positions are worth less to the company.

Imagine you’re the boss of a company and you need to promote someone to a position where they’ll be dealing with certain suppliers. Imagine that you know that these suppliers will respond better to a man than to a woman. A male employee promoted to that position would thus be worth slightly more to the company than a woman would be. Yet, you may still decide to promote a woman to that position—-if you can pay her slightly less. But if paying her slightly less means opening yourself up to a lawsuit, then forget it! You’ll promote the guy.

Sexism is a problem. But anti-discrimination laws aren’t a good solution. These laws don’t open doors to women; they close them. Being underpaid is frustrating; however, once you have a job, you have the opportunity to prove to your employer (and to the outside world) that you are worth at least as much to the company as your male counterparts. But if anti-discrimination laws discourage employers from hiring or promoting you in the first place, it’ll be a long while before we see gender equality in the workforce.