Last week a federal judge in the Southern District of New York Judge dismissed the EEOC’s long running sex and pregnancy discrimination lawsuit against financial media company Bloomberg, LP. EEOC claimed Bloomberg engaged in a “pattern and practice” of discrimination against pregnant women and mothers returning from maternity leave by reducing their pay, demoting them in title, removing responsibilities, and subjecting them to stereotypes about female caregivers.
What is notable about the case is not the judge’s conclusion based upon the evidence, but the fact that she took the unusual step of offering some “concluding remarks” highly critical of the EEOC’s approach to the case. Judge Preska wrote: “[a]t bottom, the EEOC’s theory of this case is about so-called “work-life balance”…"It amounts to a judgment that Bloomberg, as a company policy, does not provide its employee mothers with a sufficient work-life balance." But, she noted, despite the fact that it may be desirable, the law does not mandate “work-life balance”. “The law simply requires fair treatment of all employees. It requires holding employees to the same standards.” In a company like Bloomberg, which explicitly makes all-out dedication to the company its expectation, “making a decision that preferences family over work comes with consequences. But those consequences occur for anyone who takes significant time away from Bloomberg, not just for pregnant women and mothers….” As a final bombshell, the judge concluded:
Whether one thinks those consequences are intrinsically fair, whether one agrees with the roles traditionally assumed by the different genders in raising children in the United States, or whether one agrees with the monetary value society places on working versus childrearing is not at issue here. Neither is whether Bloomberg is the most “family-friendly” company. The fact remains that the law requires only equal treatment in the workplace. Employment consequences for making choices that elevate non-work activities (for whatever reason) over work activities are not illegal.
Predictably, Judge Preska’s opinion unleashed a firestorm of both support and criticism. One commentator claimed the judge has “contempt for women with kids who have ambition”, while others recognized the fact that the balance between work and family is ultimately a personal decision that all employees make, regardless of gender.
Coincidentally, the Bloomberg decision follows closely on the heels of an announcement by the Iowa Attorney General that the State paid $180,000 to settle a sex discrimination lawsuit by employee who alleged she was terminated because of family care obligations. The plaintiff alleged her boss (also a woman) made unfavorable comments about the work commitment of mothers with children. The reasons given for the termination was that the plaintiff lacked dedication to her job because she was unwilling to work the necessary long hours. She claimed she was replaced by a man who worked the number of hours she did without complaint from the supervisor.
These two cases illustrate the increasing trend of family care discrimination claims. Indeed, EEOC has made such claims an important part of its enforcement agenda. Bloomberg is an important reminder, however, that equal treatment does not impose on employers the obligation to accommodate an employee's personal life choices. At the same time employers must ensure they avoid making decisions based upon gender stereotypes, and hold all employees, regardless of gender, to the same standards.