Not long ago, my sister walked into a restaurant in Philadelphia and saw a sign that read, ‘Counter Girl Wanted’ (i.e. the restaurant was seeking a ‘girl’ to work behind the counter). Agitated, my sister proceeded to inform the manager that the sign constituted a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. As explained by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: ‘It is illegal for an employer to publish a job advertisement that shows a preference for or discourages someone from applying for a job because of his or her race, color, religion, sex (including gender identity, sexual orientation, and pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.’
If there was any doubt about the permissibility of a sign requesting applications exclusively from women for a position behind the counter, the EEOC continues, ‘a help-wanted ad that seeks “females” or “recent college graduates” may discourage men and people over 40 from applying and may violate the law.’ This is about as clear as the law can get about its intent; it even made me second-guess a decision my partner and I made to consider only females when hiring a nanny for our daughter (though we did not explicitly advertise for a ‘woman only’ when we posted on a nanny recruiting website). Unfortunately, the manager of the restaurant was less receptive than my sister (or anyone concerned with bridging the gap between the law and cultural norms) would have liked.
It can often take time for the law to catch up with changes in cultural norms, but here was case in which cultural norms are still catching up with the law. When my sister proceeded to explain that the sign was discriminatory and a violation of the law, the manager gave no indication that he appreciated the point.
‘It’s not how I think about it’, he said, jabbing his index finger against his temple in a haughty fashion as he pronounced the word ‘I’.
Not one to back down easily, my sister subsequently took it upon herself to call corporate headquarters and inform upper management that they were in violation of the law. Good for her, I say.
Admittedly, as she was telling me this story on a recent afternoon while we sat at lunch with our kids, I succumbed to a reflexive tendency to consider multiple perspectives before I agreed with what was a straightforward point about the sexist implications of a job advertisement. I consider it a personal virtue that I instinctively refuse to agree with any point without first subjecting it to rigorous scrutiny. I care about conceptual coherence, robust analytics, and logical soundness. But such doggedness does carry the risk of coming across as a heedless gadfly. A conversation does not always have to be a seminar.
Thus, I could not refrain from offering the opinion that maybe the manager was not entirely in the wrong. I thought it was safe to surmise he had no deliberate intent to demean women or maliciously discriminate against men; moreover, one can presumably speculate on the many other reasons there may be for why a crusty old purveyor of archaic sensibilities might presume that a woman (or rather, ‘girl’) is best suited for a job behind the counter, however antiquated those reasons may be.
But I was not explicitly claiming he had a malicious intent, or that he was an otherwise upright man beholden to outmoded beliefs about what kind of person should work behind the counter. I only wished to argue it was plausible. In other words, it is best not to jump to conclusions, especially about motive.
‘Doesn’t matter,’ my sister said. ‘It’s against the law.’
‘Really?’ I said. ‘But Kara (my partner) and I only considered women when hiring our nanny.’
‘But that’s a private family decision. This is an official corporate decision,’ she retorted.
‘Well, what should they do instead?’ I asked.
‘They should have a sign that says, “counter person wanted”,’ she replied
Counter person? It had an odd ring to it, sounding more like the nickname of a devil’s advocate who irksomely ‘counters’ everything you say (like me?), rather than a way of advertising the need for someone, man or woman, to work the counter. ‘Host/Hostess Wanted’, or ‘Person Needed to Work the Counter’, sounded more palatable. Semantics aside, however, I began to wonder if I was overthinking the matter. Was this about being a devil’s advocate in the interest of robust analytics, or was my own ear attuned to prevailing norms that have not yet acclimated to a law that is a half-century old? Was my ‘gadfly act’ a front for disguising my own presumption that a person working the counter should necessarily be a girl (or rather, woman)?
These are the questions I asked myself as I scrutinized my instinctive neutrality on the matter. Ultimately, however, I know myself well enough to know that, if I were the manager, I would have been more amenable to a recommendation that the advertisement be neutral with respect to gender. If a customer like my sister came in and pointed it out, I would have thanked her for the comment and proceeded to correct it (though perhaps I would have checked up on the law). Maybe as a matter of principle I would have pensively weighed and considered as many angles and perspectives as I could think of. But in practice, I would have acknowledged that playing devil’s advocate is unnecessary and unproductive in this situation. The law is the law, and in this case, I would agree the law is squarely on the side of right.
Sometimes, a truth is not hard to grasp, so long as pride or conventional wisdom does not lead you astray.
A lesson the manager might do well to learn.
The role of men is changing in the 21st century. Want to keep up?
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