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SCOTUS Case Review Part I: Price Waterhouse v. Ann Hopkins (1989)

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On May 1, 1989, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a plurality opinion in the case of Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins finding in favor of the defendant, Ann Hopkins, in a matter involving a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Indeed, the Court’s decision upheld two prior holdings by the District Court and Circuit Court of Appeals that found in favor of the plaintiff, Ann Hopkins, and as a result softened the burden of proof required to substantiate the occurrence of sexual discrimination in the work place. Yet despite alleged discriminatory stereotyping with regard to Price Waterhouse’s treatment of Mrs. Hopkins’s application for partnership at the firm, an assessment of the facts in question, in addition to a failure to prove explicit intent to discriminate on the basis of sex, renders the Court’s holding ultimately false. As such, in consideration of the case facts along with Robbins and Judge’s definition of discrimination as behavior “influenced by stereotypes about groups of people,” this assessment will contend that Price Waterhouse did not engage in discriminatory behavior, nor did it directly seek to undermine Hopkins’s application on the sole basis of sex.[1]

Ann Hopkins, a senior manager in Price Waterhouse’s Office of Government Services, received a nomination for partnership in August of 1982 following recommendations from senior firm executives who cited her high capacity and strong intellect as qualifications worthy of a firm partner. Indeed, of the 87 applicants, Hopkins was the only female nominated for review and found herself among the applicants placed on “hold,” pending further consideration of her “interpersonal and leadership skills.” Despite consultation with the firm’s chairman, Joseph Connor, with regard to the status of her application, Hopkins learned that she would likely not receive a partnership offer on account of persisting reports that she lacked an affable demeanor and had routinely dealt poorly with subordinate employees. Hopkins subsequently resigned from the firm and filed a suit in the District Court for the District of Washington D.C. claiming that Price Waterhouse was in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and as such was liable for explicit discrimination on account of sex. According to Joseph Badaracco of Harvard Business School, Hopkins’s alleged that “criticisms of plaintiff’s interpersonal skills were fabricated; […] Price Waterhouse routinely admitted male candidates with interpersonal skill problems, [and] criticisms of plaintiff’s interpersonal skills were a product of sexual stereotyping.”[2] Indeed, both the District Court and the Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Hopkins and affirmed, in the words of Judge Gesell, that “discriminatory stereotyping of females was permitted to play a part” in the admissions process.[3] Price Waterhouse subsequently filed for a writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court of the United States. Following the delivery of oral arguments, the Court issued a plurality opinion in favor of Hopkins, hence reaffirming that Price Waterhouse was indeed in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Ultimately, the Court’s ruling in Hopkins centered on identifying explicitly exclusionary discrimination on the basis of sexual stereotyping—that is, according to Robbins and Judge, the “exclusion of certain people from job opportunities, social events” and the like based on a specific criterion such as gender.[4] Widely cited as a clear preponderance of exclusionary discrimination, CG Hoffman’s (a partner at the firm) comment suggesting that Hopkins ought to enroll in “a charm school before she is considered for admission” was seen by the Court as evidence of stereotyping on the basis that Hopkins’s brash and demanding personality did not fit the firm’s alleged female employee archetype. In doing so, the Court’s ruling broadly expanded the avenues through which women could seek legal recourse for discrimination by lowering the burden of proof required to substantiate explicit discrimination. In other words, the courts now had a broader lens through which they could evaluate discrimination and apply necessary judgements to ensure to the greatest degree possible equal protection and equality in the work place.

Despite the Court’s aforementioned analysis, the basis upon which the case for discriminatory behavior was built falls considerably short in proving an explicit intention on the admissions committee’s part to discriminate against Hopkins on account of sex. Importantly, the most direct access to the admissions committee’s deliberations exist in the short and long form comments from the partners with regard to individual opinions pertaining to whether or not Hopkins should have been elevated to partner. In his review of the Hopkins Case, Badaracco includes the short form comments of 33 partners regarding Hopkins’s eligibility for partnership. Indeed, of the 33 partners cited, 8 indicated “no” regarding whether Hopkins ought to be promoted, while 12 indicated “yes.” The remaining indicated either “hold” or “insufficient information.” Importantly, in each of the comments, not one partner explicitly drew a parallel between Hopkins’s alleged lack of interpersonal skills and a stereotype of an ideal female employee archetype. For instance, in one of the more detailed responses, a partner identified as “Fridley” explained “a complete alienation of the staff towards Ann” on account of her proclivity for wanton aggression and derisiveness toward project team members. Indeed, other comments, such as those from Coffey, Warder, Everett, and Wheaton (to name a few) cite a general sentiment of dissatisfaction with Hopkins’s ability to cooperatively interact with project team members in an amicable and professional manner.[5] In the same vein, the alleged “smoking gun” comment by CG Hoffman cited by the Court regarding Hopkins’s need to attend “charm school” in and of itself does not directly imply a need for Hopkins to refine her “effeminate” qualities. Considering the broad scope of corporate etiquette, “charm”, in this specific context”, could have quite reasonably referred to a need for better communication and cooperative skills. In other words, the Court’s broad consideration of discrimination, in this context, sets an extremely poor precedent of “assuming first and asking questions later.” In their analysis of diversity in organizations, Robbins and Judge cite research that indicates “women who succeed in traditionally male domains are perceived as less likable, more hostile, and less desirable as supervisors.”[6] While at initial glance Hopkins’s perceived “brash and hostile” demeanor may fit nicely into the scenario illustrated by Robbins and Judge, it yet again fails to establish a causal relationship between gender stereotyping and a genuine lack of cooperative management skills. In other words, it can only be “assumed” and not explicitly proven that sex or gender stereotypes played any role in the calculus of the admissions committee’s decision to block Hopkins’s promotion. In reality, poor management and cooperative skills could certainly and justly influence a firm’s decision to not promote an employee based on merit as opposed to another ancillary factor.

Surprisingly, among the few instances in which firm executives made explicit references to gender archetypes, Hopkins’s confidant, Thomas Beyer (a supporter of Hopkins’s nomination) was the partner to suggest conformity with perceived female employee stereotypes. For instance, Beyer suggested that Hopkins “soften her image” by adjusting her “hair and walk,” in addition to “wearing makeup [and] not carrying a briefcase.”[7] In a rare instance of frank acknowledgement of gender stereotypes, Beyer advises Hopkins to “effeminate” her appearance so as to appeal to the higher level management. However, this isolated exchange does not prove a systemic effort by the admissions committee to discriminate against Hopkins on account of sex. Importantly, Beyer’s comment in and of itself merely assumes that conforming to a gender stereotype will augment Hopkins’s chances. Likewise, Beyer’s commentary constitutes a single opinion and cannot be broadly extrapolated to be a representation of how the firm’s admissions committee deliberates with regard to potential partner candidates.

Hopkins’s final contention asserts that the firm routinely elevated male counterparts with considerably worse “interpersonal skills,” which theoretically demonstrated unequal consideration. Yet again, the standard for identifying explicit discrimination becomes quite muddled when considering Hopkins’s fellow colleagues who also received “no” or “hold” on their applications. As previously mentioned, Hopkins was the only female among the class submitted for review by the admissions committee. Both Badaracco and the Court fail to consider the credentials of the other male candidates in the “no” and “hold” groups. Put simply, Hopkins’s case for discrimination loses strength in that fellow male colleagues, with similar qualifications, could have also been overlooked by the admissions committee in favor of candidates with less than adequate interpersonal skills. Should this be true, Hopkins’s rejection would not have been uniquely linked to gender discrimination and could have resulted from a selection quirk or alternative bias (unrelated to gender, and perhaps more political in nature).

In the grand scheme, it is impossible to definitively say with one hundred percent certainty that the admissions committee did not use gender stereotypes as a factor in their decision making calculus. Doing so would necessitate the ability to read individual partner’s thoughts—a feat both impossible and ludicrous. As such, the Court and others can merely make assumptions given an extremely paltry collection of evidence. Indeed, while Hopkins may have suffered the disparate impact of being “overlooked” for her brash demeanor, her case does not indicate any explicit wrongdoing on the part of the firm. Legitimate concerns pertaining to her ability to manage subordinates, coupled with the high degree of discretion afforded to partners, justly cast doubts regarding her qualifications for a promotion. In the same vein, the Court’s promulgation of the precedent set in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins establishes a lazy and broad burden of proof that asymmetrically favors the plaintiff in discrimination suits. While some may argue that the net benefits of the decision (i.e. a broader scope that allows for distributive justice) outweigh the potential harms, the Court’s lazy analysis of the case facts insult legitimate efforts to eradicate discrimination in the world of labor. As such, no causal link can be established between pervasive gender stereotyping and Price Waterhouse’s initial rejection of Hopkins’s bid for partnership.

 

 

References

Badaracco, J. (1991). Ann Hopkins (A)-Harvard Business School Case 9-391-155

Badaracco, J. (1991). Ann Hopkins (B)-Harvard Business School Case 9-391-170

Robbins, S. P., & Judge, T. A. (2014). Essentials of Organizational Behavior (12th ed.). Boston,   MA: Pearson.

[1] Robbins, S. P., Judge, T. A. (2014). Diversity in Organizations. Essentials of Organizational Behavior (p. 16). Boston, MA: Pearson.

[2] Badaracco, J. L.  (1991). Ann Hopkins (B). (p. 1). Boston, MA: Pearson

[3] Ibid., p. 2

[4] Robbins, S. P., Judge, T. A. (2014). Diversity in Organizations. Essentials of Organizational Behavior (p. 17). Boston, MA: Pearson.

[5] Badaracco, J. L.  (1991). Ann Hopkins (A). (p. 25). Boston, MA: Pearson

[6] Robbins, S. P., Judge, T. A. (2014). Diversity in Organizations. Essentials of Organizational Behavior (pp. 19). Boston, MA: Pearson.

[7] Badaracco, J. L.  (1991). Ann Hopkins (A). (p. 10). Boston, MA: Pearson

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