I got into an interesting discussion with a businesswoman who had posted on LinkedIn about the difficulties that women have in the workplace. Among other things, she commented that women are significantly under-represented in the executive suites and on the boards of directors of most large companies. I certainly agree.
Any intelligent person in the workforce today can see that women have more difficulty getting hired and promoted, are penalized for resume gaps when they take time off to have children, and overall, still get less pay for doing the same jobs as men. Women are too often exposed to toxic work environments, off-color jokes, inappropriate comments, and sexual overtures. That women face this type of discrimination in the workplace is a fact.
Some people approach the treatment of women in the workplace from the standpoint that this is a “gender’ issue. They assert that this conduct by men is our problem. Male business owners already know better than to discriminate against women. The simple truth is that men pay women less because they can get away with it.
I see this gender pay disparity as a labor issue. It is past the time for women to flex their economic muscles and actively purge this type of discrimination from large companies. If women were properly represented on the boards of directors of more companies, they would be in a far better position to rectify the actual problems of unequal pay and toxic work conditions at each company.
When I started law school my first-year class had 120 students including 12 women, exactly 10% based upon a pre-determined quota. Each of the women had been interviewed at the school before acceptance. None of the men had been required to sit for an interview. From the beginning, it was obvious to me that this small group of women was a little sharper than many of the men. That should have been expected as each of the women faced stiffer competition for each seat in the class.
Last week I saw the picture of a young woman wearing a tee-shirt that said: “I became the lawyer that my mother wanted me to marry.” To me, that one sentence encapsulates a generation of progress for women in the legal profession.
When I was in school it was commonly thought that women could only be trained to become nurses or teachers. Untrained, women might become waitresses, secretaries, or flight attendants. The uniforms of flight attendants were tailored to accentuate their figures and they were often fired as they got older and deemed to no longer be attractive to male passengers.
There is no question that women have broken through the glass ceilings put in their way in a great many industries. Women now work in construction and other traditionally male blue-collar jobs that would have been unthinkable not that long ago. Teachers, nurses, and flight attendants are now covered by union contracts that have raised their pay, improved their working conditions, and provided benefits and job security.
Women manage large numbers of employees within big corporations across all industries. As managers, they make decisions that define the company’s operations and impact its bottom line. Still, it is rare to find a woman as the CEO at a Fortune 500 company and virtually impossible to find a Board of Directors where women make up the majority of the directors.
Women represent one-half of the US population. The impact of women as consumers cannot be overstated. Even companies operating in niche industries deal with vendors, customers, and employees who operate in the much broader markets.
Shouldn’t seats on boards of directors be handed out equally to men and women so that the boards represent not just the perspective of the management, but the broader market that the companies serve and in which they operate?
Greater representation on corporate boards would seem to be an effective way for women to deal with issues regarding equal pay and toxic working conditions. Taking more control at the very top of the corporate governance pyramid would help women to rewrite the workplace rules at all levels.
Labor unions exist specifically to deal with issues like wages and working conditions. Unions representing workers with far worse conditions and far less power have been able to get what they want using a variety of tactics and strategies.
The last great strike, by the United Farm Workers (UFW), took place against the lettuce growers while I was in college and law school. The tactics employed by the union were quite different from those other unions had used in the past. The lettuce strike offers lessons that might help women successfully break into and take over corporate boardrooms.
Farm labor may be the world’s second-oldest profession. Growers have always had all the power and used that power to accumulate more power. Farm laborers had been excluded from the Fair Labor Standards Act and Social Security in the 1930s. Any attempt to organize farm workers was always met with a stacked deck.
In 1970, when the lettuce strike began, the working and living conditions of the lettuce workers were still medieval. Their pay was inadequate and provided only the barest necessities. The farm workers occupied the lowest rung on the ladder of American workers.
The lettuce strike organized by Cesar Chavez and the UFW was truly a David v. Goliath battle. Throughout, the growers used their considerable influence and deep pockets to thwart the workers.
Chavez succeeded because he did more than just throw up a picket line and negotiate as steel and automotive workers had done in the past. He used very different tactics to leverage support from larger groups to provide financial and logistical support.
Most importantly, the UFW successfully enlisted the lettuce consumers to alter their diets to support the strikers. The union effectively delivered a message that said 1) our working conditions are horrific and 2) don’t buy lettuce.
Traditionally unions and management negotiate contracts focused only on the numbers. Each side calculates how much each incremental boost in wages will cost the company. The union calculates the effect of lost wages on its members if there is a strike. Management calculates the effect of a strike on its bottom line.
By addressing lettuce consumers directly Chavez added the impact to the company’s reputation and customer base to the equation. The cost of winning back consumers after these boycotts would now need to be considered.
Chavez had tested out his new tactics during a 4-year strike against the grape growers. In that campaign Chavez, vowing to be non-violent, had tried out tactics adopted from the civil rights movement including long marches, prayer vigils, and a hunger strike. Local rallies in support of the union were scheduled. Media coverage of these events and the sometimes-violent protests by people opposed to the UFW kept the strikers in the public’s eye.
Chavez used the grape strike to garner support from church groups and other decent people who were horrified when exposed to the working conditions in the fields on television. By the time the strike against the lettuce growers began, Chavez already had all these tools in place. People who mattered, especially the media, had already been educated about the critical issues.
Opposition to the lettuce strike came primarily from the Teamsters Union which had negotiated sweet-heart contracts with some of the lettuce growers The UFW strikers were physically attacked, and rallies and the union offices were firebombed. Chavez, the “pacifist” of the grape strike was much more aggressive. As the tempo and temperature of the strike increased Chavez was arrested for the first time.
Within a few days Ethel Kennedy, widow of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy visited Chavez in jail. As she was leaving a small riot broke out and Mrs. Kennedy needed to be rescued by the local police. It made for great television. Mrs. Kennedy’s appearance at the courthouse had been intended to be a carefully choreographed stop on the campaign trail. The violence ensured that every television station reported on it.
At this time, I was living in Brooklyn which was about as far from the California lettuce fields as one might get. After a while, it seemed that every telephone pole had a simple sign that said “BOYCOTT LETTUCE” stapled to it. That did not happen by accident.
The “BOYCOTT LETTUCE” signs had been stapled to those telephone poles as part of a well-thought-out and well-managed PR campaign. Originally, they appeared in about thirty cities and later in thirty more. Later signs went up urging consumers to boycott two supermarket chains, one east of the Mississippi and one to the west,which bought lettuce from growers not represented by the UFW. The PR campaign was targeted and periodically expanded to ensure that the number of supporters of the strike constantly increased.
Chavez won his strike and he won it not on the picket line. He kept the conditions of the farm workers in front of consumers, daily, for an extended period. Sympathetic consumers boycotted the product, and the growers took a far bigger hit to their bottom line than they would have if they had just paid the workers from the beginning.
It is fair to consider that similar tactics would get more women on the boards of directors of more companies. Women are the dominant consumers making the decisions whether to buy Tide or Cheer,Luvs or Huggies and whether to take the kids to Burger King or McDonald’s and many, many other products as well. Women can certainly utilize their economic power to have themselves appointed to the boards of directors of these companies.
Most consumers have no idea how many women are on the board of directors of the companies that make these products. Very few consumers know whether those companies are taking advantage of women by paying them less. But, as the UFW demonstrated, consumers can be educated, and they can be mobilized. And the UFW was working within the confines of 1970s technology and media.
I can certainly envision an organization seeking to fill many more directorships with women initiating a correspondence that said: “Dear Fortune 500 company: We have noticed that ten of the 11 people that you have nominated for your Board of Directors are male. Please replace five of the men with women. If you are having difficulty finding qualified women, we will be happy to send you the resumes of thousands of women who are more than capable of contributing to your board. If you have not replaced the five male directors with 5 females in 20 days,we will begin a national campaign advising women to boycott your flagship product.”
I have no illusion that one tweet from Oprah or one of the Kardashians would be enough to sustain a national boycott of any product. I do believe that both could be included in a carefully planned, targeted, and executed campaign that includes a simple message spoken repeatedly by thousands of “influencers.”
I do not see a way for a large company can come out ahead from a public fight with its most important customers about board representation. There is no satisfactory answer to the question: “why can’t more women serve on your board of directors?”
The success of the UFW and the tactics it employed will be a lesson to the unions when the next big strikes come along. Women have been fighting for equal pay and better working conditions since at least the 1970s. Despite all the progress they have made, I think they may need some new tactics and some “out of the box” thinking to finally get what they deserve.
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