Workplace Discrimination: Transparency Key in Fight for Equality

The pay gap between men and women is substantially higher in the private sector.

ByABC News
June 21, 2011, 10:12 AM

June 21, 2011 -- In the wake of the Supreme Court's decision in the Walmart case, women across the country are reexamining the weapons they have in the fight against discrimination in the workplace. According to a new study, transparency is one of the best ways to battle inequality.

"More transparency almost always helps in fighting sex discrimination and other forms of discrimination because it exposes what the employer is doing," said Suzanne Goldberg, director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law at Columbia University. "Increased transparency is almost always a good thing because when hiring and promotion processes are more open there is less room for discrimination to flourish."

The study, from the Institute for Women's Policy Research, uncovered that secrecy is the norm in the private sector. Sixty percent of private sector employees are discouraged or forbidden from discussing their pay, reveals the study. This may be one of the reasons the pay gap between men and women is 23 percent in the private sector, while in the federal government, where transparency is mandated, the gap is only 11 percent.

Although the Walmart case struck a blow against class action lawsuits, Goldberg says it just means that going forward cases will need to be more focused to succeed.

"This is not doomsday for sex discrimination class action. It does mean discrimination suits will be brought on a smaller scale, either on a per store or per unit basis, but sex discrimination suits will continue and will continue to force change in workplaces," Goldberg told ABC News. "I expect sex discrimination lawsuits to continue for as long as sex discrimination continues in workplaces, which unfortunately will be for the foreseeable future."

Mika Brzezinski, co-host of "Morning Joe" on MSNBC, isn't a woman one would think would need help with salary equality.

"I got a sense of what all the guys where making on the set, and I looked around one morning and I realized I was the lowest paid on the set and in one case by far," she said.

Brzezinski details her own uncomfortable, but ultimately successful battle for equal pay in her new book "Knowing Your Value." The morning host was able to avoid a legal battle, but did engage in tough negotiations.

"I think we apologize too much," Brzezinski told ABC News. "We worry about about if we're liked by our employers. Let me just tell you men don't worry about these things. They go in and negotiate for themselves."

Dr. Marjorie McMillan, a Massachusetts veterinarian, experienced the same sense of shock as Brzezinski after the salaries of her co-workers were exposed.

"An article was published in the newspaper where the salaries of all the other department heads were published and mine was $30,000 less than all the other department heads," said McMillan.

McMillan was not only underpaid she said she was also "deceived and lied too." She said her bosses had assured that she was paid at the same level as he counterparts.

McMillan tried negotiating, but ultimately filed suit as an individual and won after nine years.

"It has made a difference for women in my profession, and so I have no second thoughts about it," said McMillan. "This is part of the equation we can control and ... we have got to learn to ask for more."

Goldberg said one of the most important things women can do is know what resources are available to them.

"It can be a very challenging process to bring a discrimination suit, which is why there are so few suits relative to the amount of discrimination in the workplace," she told ABC News. "The best first step for an employee that cannot afford a lawyer is to go to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is the federal agency that enforces Title VII, the federal anti-discrimination law. Or to go to a state or local human rights commission that enforces state and local law because those agencies can sometimes provide lawyers to aid in bringing cases."