UIC professorís male bias theory to play big role in Wal-Mart case
By KIM JANSSEN Staff Reporterkjanssen@suntimes.com
Mar 29, 2011 02:08AM
A University of Illinois at Chicago professorís theory that white men have an unconscious bias against women and minorities is likely to be center stage Tuesday when the U.S. Supreme Court considers whether nearly 1.5 million women can join in an employment discrimination lawsuit against Wal-Mart.
Sociology Professor William Bielby ó who has taught at UIC since 2007 ó has served as a star witness in dozens of discrimination cases against big business. His testimony has proved crucial because it doesnít rely on ďsmoking gunĒ evidence of prejudice, such as a sexist e-mail or memo, to take on what supporters say are ďcheck-boxĒ corporate equality policies.
Legal experts say the Supreme Courtís ruling in the multi-billion dollar Wal-Mart case could have major implications for employment law.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit allege the worldís largest public corporation has a ďculture that is rife with gender stereotypes demeaning to female employees.Ē They say the company pays women less than men to do the same work and unfairly passes women over for promotion, even though its own data shows women are more experienced and effective.
Wal-Mart denies the charges and argues the handful of California Wal-Mart workers who filed the case arenít representative of the ďpotentially millions of women supervised by tens of thousands of different managers.Ē More than 20 major corporations including Bank of America, Microsoft and Costco are backing it in the fight.
But Bielby, who declined to give an interview, wrote in a report for the trial court that Wal-Mart doesnít do enough to examine why two-thirds of its low-level hourly paid workers are women while two-thirds of its salaried managers are men. Its policies allow managers in the field to apply gender stereotypes in hiring, promotion and pay decisions, he argued.
Even people ďwhose personal beliefs are relatively free of prejudice or bias are susceptible to stereotypes,Ē he wrote, adding that managers make unfair assumptions that women are less ambitious and more interested in their families than their career.
A federal appeals court ruled 6-5 in favour of the plaintiffs last April, with the court finding that ďDr. Bielby presented scientifically reliable evidence.Ē
But critics ó including the academics who coined the term ďsocial framework analysisĒ that Bielby says he practices ó say Bielbyís conclusions go too far because they are based on laboratory studies of studentsí reactions to strangers, and not how Wal-Mart managers evaluate employees they may have known for years.
Harvard Prof. Christopher Winship, who has opposed Bielby in several cases, said Bielbyís analysis was ďnot even-handed,Ē adding that Bielby tends to dismiss evidence that doesnít fit his theory.