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My Opinion

Divided on Discrimination

Survey respondents have mixed views on prevalence and nature of workplace discrimination.

By John J. McGurk

March/April 2007 Table of Contents

Editor’s note: Due to the topic of this survey, some respondents are quoted anonymously.

 

Despite the proliferation of government laws and employer policies strictly prohibiting workplace discrimination, it still occurs. But the extent of the problem, and even agreeing on what constitutes discrimination, remains a topic of debate. While antidiscrimination laws and policies clearly forbid certain behaviors, there exists a gray area where the definition of workplace discrimination is hazy and subject to interpretation.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising, then, that the latest My Opinion survey found LAT readers divided on the subject of workplace discrimination. Exactly 50 percent of survey respondents think discrimination in the legal workplace has decreased in the past decade, while 37.1 percent think it has stayed the same and 12.9 percent think it has increased.

“The ‘old boys network’ is still a factor,” said a 3-year certified paralegal from Milwaukee. “Mostly with private companies, when top management holds old prejudices and antiquated notions, you can expect their unwritten policies and practices to reflect that.”

“Discrimination in the workplace continues to exist,” said a 15-year senior paralegal from Cincinnati, “but it has become more subtle and complex.”

“My employer does not discriminate on any level,” said a 6-year paralegal from Cicero, New York. “I have a disability, and he is cooperative and understanding and provides any equipment that I need.”

Wendy Kimbel, ACP, a 29-year paralegal from Mebane, N.C., said, “I have only worked in small firms, so discrimination has never been an issue.”

Discrimination has, however, been an issue for the 44.3 percent of respondents who said they personally have been discriminated against. Among those respondents, 48.4 percent said they have switched jobs or departments to avoid the situation, while 51.6 percent said they have not.

When discrimination is reported, 51.4 percent of all respondents said they don’t know what their employer does. Those who do know said that their employer takes the following action: confronts the offender, 25.7 percent; gives the offender a warning, 15.7 percent; does nothing, 14.1 percent; fires the offender, 7.1 percent. One Houston-area paralegal said her employer refuses to take action against a reported offender because it would hurt profits. 

“On paper, [my] employer is supposed to confront the offender. In practice, nothing happens,” she said. “The attorney brings the money, and the bottom line is what counts. Most paralegals can’t file a discrimination suit [and] cook their future career path. The legal community is actually small, and word gets around.”

One respondent, however, did take legal action — twice.

“I was a plaintiff in two class-action gender discrimination lawsuits,” said Pam Horn, a 19-year senior paralegal from Austin, Texas. “A law firm employer attempted to retroactively cancel my health insurance benefits when I disclosed my pregnancy. A different employer attempted to withdraw an offer of employment upon learning of my pregnancy.”

When asked what they consider the main factors behind discrimination, 54.3 percent of respondents said a lack of understanding and education. The second most common answer, at 50 percent, was human nature. Rounding out the list were: lack of concern by employers, 38.6 percent; intolerance, 35.7 percent; and inadequate laws, 10 percent. 

“Many times, I don’t believe that the ‘offender’ is truly trying to discriminate,” said a 3-year contract compliance manager from Milwaukee. “I think it’s just human nature sometimes. I also feel that some people who are offended can at times be overly sensitive to an accused offender’s comments.”

Of course, the definition of “overly sensitive” is subjective, just like the nebulous gray area that makes an exact definition of workplace discrimination so elusive. And unfortunately, just as that definition remains elusive, so does a solution to the problem.

 

 

survey results

Do you think discrimination in the legal workplace has decreased, increased or
     remained the same in the past 10 years?

Decreased: 50.0%

Remained the same: 37.1%

Increased: 12.9%

 

Have you ever been the subject of discrimination in the workplace?

No: 55.7%

Yes: 44.3%

 

If yes, was the discrimination based on your: (Select all that apply.)

Gender: 41.9%

Race/Ethnicity: 29.0%

Age: 22.6%

Disability: 12.9%

Pregnancy: 12.9%

Secual Orientation: 9.7%

Other: 9.7%

 

Does/has your employer conduct(ed) meetings, seminars or training on the
     subject of discrimination?

Yes: 38.6%

No: 61.4%

 

Total survey responses: 70

 

 

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