Monthly Archives: July 2010

Is it Moral to Eat Plants?

The gauntlet has been thrown down for ethical vegans: is it moral to eat plants? This month BBC News published an article asserting that plants “can think and remember.” Natalie Angier published a piece titled “Sorry, Vegans: Brussels Sprouts Like to Live, Too.”

The articles cite evidence that plants send chemical signals from one leaf to another in response to light and activate defenses against marauding animals and insects. But this evidence does not entitle plants to the same moral concern as animals: it does not prove that plants are sentient.

Ethical vegans (as opposed to vegans motivated by health or environmentalism, both of which are also sound rationales for a vegan diet) eliminate animal products from their diet (and their wardrobes) so they will not cause animals to suffer. Agribusiness has made the lives of millions of animals raised for food and fiber hellacious and their deaths gruesome in ways that would be unimaginable in the bucolic, red barn mythology of the old-fashioned American family farm. Vegans abstain from animal products because we know that animals suffer – both that they are capable of suffering, and that factory farms makes them suffer.

The new studies of plants have not proven that they are capable of suffering. According to Gene Baur, co-founder of Farm Sanctuary, “sentience is the key point. For the animals it’s obvious and well-documented. With plants it isn’t.” Without sentience, there can be no suffering. Angier has challenged ethical vegans prematurely: since we don’t have evidence that plants suffer, we don’t have a reason not to eat or wear plant products.

But this argument puts ethical vegans in an ironic position. Normally it is vegans defending the position that animals are sentient, that they feel pain and fear, and a significant piece of evidence for that argument is their reactions to threats and to sustenance. With regard to plants, vegans must argue that plants’ reactions to threats and sustenance do not prove that they are sentient.

So let’s grant Angier’s argument for a moment and assume that plants are sentient. Humans cannot survive without eating them, which is a very practical but amoral argument. There is also a moral argument consistent with the values of ethical vegans, as Baur points out: “by eating plants we’ll be killing fewer than if we eat animals, who have eaten lots and lots of plants.” Even if evidence emerges that plants are sentient, therefore, ethical vegans will still hold the moral high ground.

Settling Gender Discrimination Class Actions (Part II)

It may not seem credible that gender discrimination remains widespread and systemic in American workplaces. Women outnumber men in colleges and graduate programs; they have entered the workforce in force; women run some companies, universities, states, and departments of the federal government.

Despite all this progress, though, discrimination persists. Women are only 17% of Congress members. Women head a mere 2.6% of Fortune 500 companies. In other words, men still overwhelmingly control our most powerful political institutions and our economy.

The familiar glass ceiling argument could explain this striking disparity: women can rise up through the ranks professionally, but at some point they hit the glass ceiling and cannot go any higher. If that were the only problem, it might explain why women are so conspicuously absent from the powerful positions listed above. But the gender disparities start well below the highest levels of power.

A striking pattern emerges from statistics analyzing the numbers of women at various levels in financial services companies (which I’ve become familiar with from representing so many women in discrimination cases against them). At the entry level, there can be as many female as male employees. At the next level up, women make up a smaller percentage of employees. At the next level, even fewer of the workers are women. And on it goes, until you reach the near complete absence of women from the position of CEO. Graphically, the numbers describe a pyramid: with every promotion the percentage of women shrinks.

Social scientists like
William Bielby of the University of Illinois at Chicago
and Barbara Reskin of the University of Washington
have studied this phenomenon and traced it to its roots: unconscious bias that affects subjective decision-making.

Even the most fair-minded people are subject to unconscious biases. The Implicit Association Test is one of many studies to demonstrate that people can have strong preferences and antipathies they may not be aware of. Even people who consider themselves very fair-minded can be unconsciously prejudiced against minorities, for example. To give a very rough summary of part of the underlying theory, people tend to think in terms of “in groups” and “out groups.” My “in group” is the group of people who are like me in salient ways such as gender, race, religion, age, educational background, profession, family status, etc. I tend to attribute more positive characteristics to members of the in group and more negative characteristics to members of the out group, who are unlike me. For instance, as a native Midwesterner, I may unconsciously prefer fellow Midwesterners to people from other parts of the country, although if you ask me whether I think Midwesterners are better than other Americans in any way, I will honestly answer that I don’t. The bias is unconscious.

Unconscious biases operate in the workplace as they do in every other sphere of human interaction, with the result that the groups in power tend to stay in power. Male managers may subconsciously believe that other men are more capable than women, outperform women, or are more committed to their work than women. Again, these beliefs can be subconscious, but they still affect decision-making. When it comes to a subjective decision such as who deserves a promotion, a male manager with an unconscious bias in favor of men is more likely to promote a man than a woman. The same is true of granting raises, distributing assignments, and making opportunities like management training available. This is how unconscious bias can combine with subjective decision-making to favor men (and other groups like whites) and to create the pyramid that leaves women at the lower corporate levels while disproportionately men climb to power.

There are other factors at work here too. People tend not only to think more highly of members of their in group, but to be more comfortable with them. As a result, a male manager may invite some employees to a golf outing or to dinner – nothing formal, just being a down-to-earth supervisor. He invites the employees with whom he feels most comfortable or thinks he has the most in common. A slew of scientific studies demonstrate that he is likely to feel most comfortable with the employees who belong to his in group – in this case, men. As a result, he gets to know his male subordinates better and become friends with them. When plum assignments or opportunities for promotion arise, the manager is more likely to dole them out to the subordinates he is more comfortable working with and is friends with.

Unconscious bias is difficult if not impossible to change. Researchers including Frank Dobbin of Harvard University have shown that common techniques for combating prejudice, such as diversity training, not only do not help – they actually backfire.

The way to tackle workplace discrimination is not to try to change people’s unconscious thoughts, but to make decision-making processes less subjective and therefore less vulnerable to unconscious bias. Action must come from the top of the organization: an employer that provides clear, objective criteria to guide otherwise subjective decisions, and that enforces the use of those criteria, will make the workplace less discriminatory by diminishing the opportunity for decision-makers’ unconscious biases to affect their judgment.

The settlement of the gender discrimination class action against Novartis discussed in the first part of this post takes a stab at making these kinds of changes. It requires Novartis to clarify and systematize the criteria for evaluating employees, to train managers to evaluate employees fairly, and to “calibrate” evaluations to check that evaluators are applying performance criteria in a uniform manner.

Where bias is conscious and discrimination is intentional, decision-makers will find ways around objective criteria for decision-making. Conscious prejudice presents an entirely different set of challenges than unconscious bias. But I’d like to believe that a lot of workplace discrimination results from unconscious bias and that employers will improve their procedures to protect decision-making processes from that bias. Some employers have already done so, albeit usually under court order (demonstrating the need for more discrimination class actions). Employer initiatives to make subjective decision-making more objective will help end workplace discrimination. Please post a comment to share your workplace experience.

Settling Gender Discrimination Class Actions (Part I)

Eight- or nine-figure settlements of gender discrimination class action lawsuits regularly make news. It seems like discrimination this pervasive – essentially, discrimination as corporate policy – should be a relic of the Mad Men past. To the contrary, in countless companies and even entire industries, discrimination against women is business as usual. The latest example is Novartis, a pharmaceutical company, which settled a gender discrimination class action for up to $175 million last week. (Note that the first legal step in this case was taken seven years ago – keep that in mind before you run out to sue your boss.)

As a lawyer, I spent several years bringing and settling discrimination lawsuits against large employers. I talked with female employees who told similar stories of discrimination derailing their careers and sometimes even damaging their health. I learned that it will take an awful lot to eradicate gender discrimination against women at work.

Company-wide discrimination looks pretty much the same no matter the employer’s industry, region, or public image. Managers deny women opportunities for management training. They deny women in sales the best accounts and territories. When a woman succeeds in building up a previously lackluster account, management takes it away and gives it to a man. Managers exclude women from networking opportunities, management training, and promotions. They deny their female employees awards and recognition that they have earned. Managers penalize women who take legally-mandated leave to give birth or to bond with an adopted child. Offending companies pay men more than their female peers.

Then there is sexual harassment, which can include public humiliation, wildly inappropriate comments, even more wildly inappropriate touching, sexual propositions, public discussions among male employees and managers about their female colleagues’ and clients’ physical appearances or sexual proclivities, you name it. I know of a male manager instructing a female subordinate to unbutton her blouse more before meeting with a male client to increase her chances of making a sale. I know of a male manager raping a female subordinate. And everything in between.

Woe betide the woman who dares to complain about discrimination to Human Resources or to the government agencies responsible for enforcing anti-discrimination laws. The traditional next step is for the company to retaliate against her – never mind that retaliating against someone who complains about employment discrimination violates federal law. Retaliation means not only more of the same for the complaining employee, but worse. A manager who had not been in the habit of humiliating women in front of male colleagues and clients will take it up as a new hobby. Any raises, bonuses, promotions, training opportunities, etc. that management had promised to the woman vanish, never to reappear.

The Novartis complaint includes the detailed allegations of Novartis’s discrimination against 22 women. Combined, their stories cover pretty much all of these bases. One recurring theme is the utter pointlessness of complaining through official channels about discrimination or retaliation. Woman after woman reports that she submitted a complaint to Human Resources, and Human Resources ignored it.

This is not surprising. Human resources originated as a corporate response to the labor movement: companies discouraged employees from organizing unions by offering them newfangled personnel management or human resources departments to address their needs, assuring workers that their employers would take better care of them than unions would. From the beginning human resources was corporate CYA, tasked primarily with protecting the company from threats including unions and legal liability, and only secondarily (if at all) with helping employees. Some companies have moved past that history and created human resource departments that actually support employees, but that is far from the norm.

The Novartis settlement agreement, like many other class action discrimination settlements, focuses on reforming human resources and the complaint process so that it works for employees and not against them. The settlement agreement devotes page after page to detailing the coming reforms.

If all goes according to plan these reforms will be a welcome improvement for Novartis’s women, even if they are only partially successful. Theoretically they will serve three goals: (1) ending ongoing discrimination against individuals who file complaints (“complainants”); (2) preventing retaliation against individual complainants; and (3) deterring discrimination at Novartis. These are all ambitious goals, and perhaps not entirely reachable, but the most implausible is the second. Imagine the scenario: a woman files a complaint with her employer about her male supervisor’s discriminatory behavior. Human resources can warn him not to retaliate; his own bosses can warn him not to retaliate; the company’s lawyers can warn him that retaliation is illegal; but still, realistically, he will retaliate. Maybe he will be smart and it will be subtle. He won’t pal around with the complainant. His performance evaluation of her will be less than stellar. When he has the opportunity to promote somebody, if there is someone else with credentials reasonably similar to hers, guess who will get the promotion. And all this is the best case scenario. A less smart, less subtle supervisor will make the woman’s work life a living hell.

Reforming the human resources department at a company rife with gender discrimination is both necessary and laudable, but it is not sufficient (nor is it all the Novartis settlement agreement provides for – that document is 68 pages long). Ending discrimination can only happen before discrimination starts. Read more in Part II.