Yesterday, a New York Times Magazine article on the absolutely piss-poor treatment of women at Kay Jewelers and its sister companies correctly bounced around Twitter, so right out of the gate, I’m here to tell you that the hype is real. This story is an insane ride, and if you’re in the market for a good, long read, this is the stuff right here.
In 2005, female employees of Sterling Jeweler (parent co of Kay Jewelers, Jared, etc.) filed a lawsuit alleging sex discrimination in pay/promotions. 14 years later, the suit is unresolved, and most of its details are secret. But why? My @NYTmag story: https://t.co/T79pRqikzW— Taffy Brodesser-Akner (@taffyakner) April 23, 2019
For those of you looking for the highlights, I’m going to give you a few broad strokes with the caveat that you really need to experience the whole article. It’s expertly crafted, and my dumb words won’t do it justice. Not to mention, I’m barely scratching the surface, which should be alarming considering I’m about to cover some sh*t.
On that note, here’s the situation in a nutshell: Over 14 years ago, a female assistant manager — who had been repeatedly dicked over for a promotion she was promised by Sterling, which would become a theme here — discovered that her Florida store was consistently underpaying women. The numbers were all right there in the payroll sheets. After a few phone calls, and the involvement of a class-action attorney, it quickly became apparent that the pay discrepancy was not an isolated incident. Not by a long shot. It was baked right into the system, according to the Times.
A store manager, Dean Huffman, said that his regional vice presidents told him that it was “better to hire female employees because the company did not have to pay them as much”; Dave Everton, a regional vice president, told a subordinate, “Why pay women more when they just get pregnant and have families? We need people who are hungry”; John Liebler, another regional vice president, told his subordinates that his wife, a former Sterling employee, was “at home waiting for me where she’s supposed to be.”
As writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner notes, when you have a culture that functions on exploiting women, you’re going to run into even darker problems than just wage discrimination. And sure enough, as lawyers dug into the pay-gap issue, they unearthed an overflowing cesspool of sexual harassment and straight-up rape that permeated the entire Sterling company.
This played out through a system in which men were consistently paid more than women and promoted more quickly; a promotions system in which men received, as many I spoke to described it, a “tap on the shoulder” for advancement instead of being rewarded through any kind of predictable, fair system; a hiring system in which management received instructions from regional vice presidents that included: “Put them in a push-up bra and get them on the lease line. That’s how you’ll get sales.”
It was even more insidious after hours: One former saleswoman told me that on one occasion, her manager forced her and others to go out for drinks with an executive who was in town; he got drunk and kept trying to get them to “come see something” in his room; another saleswoman warned her that the year before, that same executive locked a saleswoman in his hotel bathroom, and she had to call for help. Scott Smith told me that he once had to talk an executive out of trying to coerce a female manager back to his limo; the executive was drunk, and the woman was pleading for help.
During one disturbing episode, Brodesser-Akner describes a female employee who was raped by a co-worker in her hotel room during one of Sterling’s infamously booze-filled out-of-town managers’ meeting. You’ll never believe how that situation was handled unless you’re a woman, then you probably have a horrible feeling in your gut about how it exactly went down. (Emphasis mine.)
Danielle asked him to leave and woke up her roommate, Wendy. She called her district manager, Kelly Contreras, who came to her room in the middle of the night and accompanied Danielle to the hospital. Danielle says that Kelly told her that before they left for the hospital, Tryna Kochanek asked Kelly if she was sure Danielle wasn’t lying, and to remember that Kelly’s loyalty needed to be to the company.
For the record, Tryna Kochanek is one of the few, if not only, female VPs at Sterling, and in the article, she is referred to as an alias for sexual discrimination. As in, “Look, we made a broad VP! No women problems here!”
So with that in mind, it should come as no surprise, that the company response to Danielle’s rape and eventual lawsuit for an unsafe work space was, legally speaking, some f*cking bullsh*t.
Wendy had been an employee with excellent performance records, so much so that she had won a reward trip to Puerto Rico. But according to legal filings, Lynch and another executive, Bob Farrell, along with Steve Zashin, an employment lawyer who represented Sterling, summoned her to their corporate headquarters in Akron and began to interrogate her about her past romantic relationships, how well she knew Danielle, whether she’d been engaged in “dirty dancing” (their 1980s phrase, not mine) the night before the rape, whether or not Danielle had had sex with another man at the meeting, what Danielle had been wearing during the meeting, whether or not Wendy had had breast implants. She told them she would tell them about the night of the rape, but that other questions were off-limits — that she had a right to privacy. According to the filings, they told her that she was on Sterling property and therefore had no expectation of privacy. She began to cry and told them that she had been raped at 15 and that she would no longer speak with them without a lawyer. She tried to leave, and one of them said, “Sit down.” When she refused to answer questions unrelated to the night of the rape, they let her leave. She was fired the next week for “failure to cooperate with an internal investigation.”
Cool. Cool cool cool. Being a woman is a nightmare.
Somehow, there’s a final detail that makes that episode even worse, but I won’t spoil that little surprise that almost knocked me out of my chair. What I will do is blockquote this interesting piece of information that I literally had no idea about and is good to know in case you’re thinking of taking your jewelry business elsewhere.
If Sterling Jewelers Inc. isn’t a familiar name to you, it’s probably not because the company isn’t a part of your life. Sterling and its parent company, Signet, own the jewelry stores that dominate the malls and strip malls, with brands like Kay, Jared the Galleria of Jewelry, Osterman, J.B. Robinson, Zales and a dozen others. Often a set of two or three jewelry stores that appear to be competing in a mall are all owned by Signet, its own hall of mirrors.
Awesome. So imagine if one corporate entity owned McDonald’s, Burger King, Arby’s, and Taco Bell, because that’s basically what’s happening here. Not only that, but it’s being done by a company who built itself on using its female employees like a Hooter’s for jewelry while also systematically underpaying and sexually harassing them as much as possible. And if any of these women tried to do anything about it, they got to experience the joy of a labyrinthian and secretive arbitration process called Resolve that, naturally, was engineered to bury all of this quickly and never let stockholders find out.
If you’ve been following this story, then you probably know that the first news of Sterling’s sexual harassment broke in the Washington Post back in 2017, and… not much happened. As Brodesser-Akner notes, there was an eventual stock drop and a loss in earnings, but that could just as easily be attributed to the ongoing retail apocalypse that’s shuttering brick and mortar stores left and right.
In the meantime, the legal battle over Sterling’s corporate culture of the boys club treating its stores like goddamn candy dishes has spent over a decade in court. Will anything change from this fresh set of eyes? Let me go ahead and drop a spoiler for what happened to that rape victim from earlier. I’m really hoping this outcome isn’t an omen, but it probably is. Ready for this?
She’s a big Brett Kavanaugh supporter because Dr. Christine Blasey Ford should’ve remembered more details.
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