My mom’s victory against sex discrimination expanded Title VII protections to LGBTQ people

opinion


Tela Mathias


Opinion contributor

Published 6: 00 AM EDT Nov 2, 2019

When I told my 16-year-old son Peter we were going to the Supreme Court last month, his response was, “Am I in trouble?”

My mother passed away before my three youngest knew her. Peter was her favorite. I explained that I wanted him to see firsthand the intersection of his beloved gran’s life, its enduring civil rights significance, and the still urgent need to defend the core American values of diversity, equality and inclusion.

My mother, Ann Hopkins, was plaintiff in a landmark Supreme Court case that won equal protections for women in the workplace 30 years ago. Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins established that hiring processes and work evaluations should be determined by experience and performance, never by appearance or adherence to gender stereotypes.

Breaking sex discrimination barriers

As a management consultant at Price Waterhouse, my mother brought in more business in five years than any other candidate up for partnership. Yet her candidacy stalled. Twice. It was unthinkable that she should be denied admittance to the partnership. But the firm went to great lengths to force my mother to resign, because of her perceived failure to comply with sex stereotypes about how women should look and act.

In September 1984, she filed a federal complaint under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, alleging discrimination, retaliation, and harassment. In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that discriminating against workers because of gender stereotyping is a form of sex discrimination. And finally, years after having first been nominated, my mother returned to work at Price Waterhouse as a partner.

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My mother retired more than 15 years ago and tragically passed away last year. Over the years, dozens of people of different genders and backgrounds sought her advice and counsel. Her case has been consistently affirmed and reaffirmed. It has been relied on as precedent in many lower courts to rule against companies that have discriminated against LGBTQ people and is the only Supreme Court decision holding that it is illegal to discriminate against employees based on their non-conformity with sex stereotypes.

And still today this case matters.

My mother’s case still applies today

The Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments in three cases to determine whether Title VII prohibits LGBTQ discrimination. Don Zarda was a skydiving instructor in New York who was terminated for being gay. Gerald Bostock was fired from his job as a child welfare services coordinator in Georgia because he is gay. And Aimee Stephens was dismissed from her job as director of a funeral home in Michigan for being a transgender woman and hoping to come to work as the woman she is.

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In all three cases, the employees’ sex cannot be overlooked. If Don and Gerald were women who expressed an attraction to men, they would not have been fired. If Aimee had not deviated from outdated social norms requiring her to live as a man rather than as a woman, she would not have been fired.

My mother and these LGBTQ employees were punished for refusing to adhere to society’s expectations and standards for how women and men should act — including dressing in traditionally feminine or masculine attire, expressing mannerisms generally associated with being masculine or feminine, and engaging solely in relationships with people of the opposite sex. Allowing employers to discriminate against workers because of their gender presentation or sexual orientation is the same as discriminating against women on the basis of sex.

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In addition, discrimination is harmful to individual workers and hurts businesses’ bottom line by making it impossible for otherwise qualified workers to focus on their jobs and performance. My mother’s employer, now PricewaterhouseCoopers, has reversed its position and signed onto an amicus brief that supports protections for LGBTQ employees from discrimination based on sex.

Peter never stopped being nervous at the Supreme Court. But I work to instill in all my children, employees, and clients, the importance of action; and that inaction is just as bad as discrimination. Employment discrimination against the LGBTQ community is an outrage. Gender conformity must not be a requirement for employment. The matters before the court are human rights matters. That’s why Peter and I urge the justices to issue a ruling in support of LGBTQ people.

Tela Mathias is the daughter of Ann Hopkins, the plaintiff in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins. She is the managing partner of PhoenixTeam, a mortgage technology company, and lives in Maryland. 

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