If you are a woman who works in a pressure-cooker profession like law or finance, you must read New York district court judge Loretta Preska's opinion in the Bloomberg L.P. discrimination case. Whether you agree with the decision or not (the judge dismissed charges by the EEOC that Bloomberg had systematically discriminated against pregnant women or those who recently returned to work from maternity leave), it's a fascinating read.
Calling the evidence against Bloomberg "insufficient," Preska goes to town on what she thinks is the real subtext of the lawsuit. She writes:
At bottom, the EEOC's theory of this case is about so-called work/life balance. Absent evidence of a pattern of discriminatory conduct . . . the EEOC’s pattern or practice claim does not demonstrate a policy of discrimination at Bloomberg. It amounts to a judgment that Bloomberg, as a company policy, does not provide work/life balance.
And the law, she reminds us, "does not mandate work/life balance." Preska essentially says that "balance" is a personal matter--not a corporate obligation.
In the decision, Preska quotes Jack Welch, General Electric's legendary CEO: "There’s no such thing as work/life balance. There are work/life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences." A company like Bloomberg, she adds, explicitly states that it expects "all-out dedication" from its employees in return for a hefty paycheck. Thus, "making a decision that preferences family over work comes with consequences."
No surprise that Preska's opinion is upsetting a lot of women. "By Judge Preska’s logic, even the most dedicated, career-driven mother is going to be penalized for taking time away from work to have a baby," says Michelle Gerdes in The Wall Street Journal. “She hardly hides her contempt for women with kids who have ambition and want top-paying jobs,” Sonia Ossorio, the executive director of National Organization for Women, told The New York Times. “If you read her comments, she says that basically if a workplace culture is work 24/7, then they have a right to have that type of culture.”
And Ms. magazine says:
Did she say “Jack Welch”? Yes, he was a business icon at one time. His leadership was heralded at Harvard Business School in the early ’80s. But his rein in the world of influential ideas was then and this is now. . . . We can no longer afford to dismiss half of our human resource capital because it happens to be female and sometimes bears children . . . the Bloomberg case’s reasoning and citing of a business dinosaur reminds us that business culture still has far to develop.
Business culture does have a long way to go on the work/life balance front, but is Preska making the problem worse? I don't think so. Nor do I find her unsympathetic to the plight of working mothers.
Like it or not, there's a lot of truth to what Preska says--though it seems uncomfortably retro to admit that high performers in the business arena often lack balance in their personal lives. That's certainly still the case in the world of big-firm practice, where time is still money.
How should we view Preska's remarks: a free-market homage to the status quo, or a needed shot of reality? You tell me.
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