The Devil Wears Prada: Meryl Streep and the Queen Bee myth

Kristin Starnes Gray

You’ve seen her splashed across the big screen, small screen, computer screen, and even your tablet screen, but have you ever actually met the fabled Executive Queen Bee? We’re talking about the stereotypical top female executive who stomps on other women on her way to the top, reveling in her success while ignoring or sabotaging the advancement of other women. According to a recent study by researchers at Columbia Business School and the University of Maryland’s business school, this Executive Queen Bee is a myth.  Queen Bee

A recent Washington Post article spotlighted this intriguing study noting, “One of the most enduring stereotypes in the American workplace is that of the ‘queen bee’: the executive female who, at best, doesn’t help the women below her get ahead and, at worst, actively hinders them.” Meryl Streep (an outspoken activist for wage equality and women’s rights) famously and stylishly portrayed a fictional Queen Bee in The Devil Wears Prada, which is based on a best-selling novel of the same name. In the film and novel, Streep’s character (Miranda Priestly) alternates between coldly ignoring and hotly abusing her female minions. For example, she demands that one of her female assistants acquire the new, unpublished Harry Potter novel with the underlying threat of immediate termination for failure to complete this seemingly impossible task. Such characters clearly make for excellent box office and book sales, but are these Executive Queen Bees a reality of the modern workplace?

On the contrary, the study in question found that, in companies with female CEOs, female employees’ chances of holding other high-level positions were somewhat improved. This study casts doubt on the existence of an Executive Queen Bee and suggests that implicit company quotas are to blame for statistics showing that, after a company hired one woman to a high-ranking position (other than CEO), the chances of a second woman landing a top position decreased by approximately 50 percent. Researchers suggest that companies feel pressured to add a female executive to their upper echelon to give the appearance of diversity and then feel like their job is done.

Regardless of the reason for the disparity, we should all rest a bit easier knowing that we are probably not going to see an actual Miranda Priestly striding into the corner office and demanding an advance copy of J.K. Rowling’s next Cormoran Strike novel (set to be released on October 20, 2015, for my fellow fans of her wizard-free detective series). Employers, however, would be well advised to continue to strive for diversity rather than simply the appearance of diversity. In addition, what a wonderful professional world it would be if we all abided by the Golden Rule while also considering ways to pay it forward through mentorships or other opportunities.  Now someone bring me my autographed Career of Evil manuscript and get Joanne on the phone pronto!

Live long and diversify your workforce

March 02, 2015 - by: Andy Tanick 1 COMMENTS
Andy Tanick

The death of Leonard Nimoy this week brought back many memories of the actor’s classic portrayal of Mr. Spock in the original “Star Trek” television series and subsequent movies, as well as his talents as a photographer, writer, and lecturer.Man giving Vulcan salute

Spock, as personified by Nimoy, embodied many qualities that employers value in their workforce, such as intelligence, logic, and loyalty. But as I was lying awake at night desperately trying to think of some justification for paying tribute to Nimoy–who was, by all accounts, truly a kind, thoughtful, and intellectual man–in a blog about employment law, something else struck me: how “Star Trek” depicted the ultimate diverse workplace, decades before anyone was even talking about such things.

Other television shows in the 1960s were beginning to introduce racial diversity into their fictional workplaces, such as Linc Hayes in “Mod Squad” and Peggy Fair in “Mannix,” but Star Trek took the concept to a whole new level. The U.S.S. Enterprise’s crew included not only an African-American communications officer, an Asian helmsman, a Scottish chief engineer, and a Russian ensign, but also a first officer, Spock, who was not just from another nation, but from a different planet and indeed a different species altogether (well, half of him anyway). With apologies to those who believe men are from Mars and women are from Venus, this was the first truly interplanetary workforce.

While the other diverse members of the Enterprise crew did not (as far as I can recall) really act any differently from their American, Caucasian counterparts such as Captain Kirk and Dr. McCoy, Spock was a different story. Being of two different worlds, Spock would occasionally let his human emotions show, but for the most part, he conducted himself in accordance with his Vulcan heritage: cold, unemotional, and of course, very logical. The ways in which his personality and conduct varied from his human counterparts often produced conflict on the Enterprise, as well as comic relief. But ultimately, the other crew members embraced Spock and appreciated the different viewpoint and perspective he brought to their traveling workplace.

Today’s diverse workplaces often deal with similar issues, as employees learn to live and work with co-workers from different cultures–albeit not different planets or, for the most part, species. We have learned, for example, that some employees may dress differently based on the customs of their ancestry. Or maybe that a particular female co-worker from a different background may not feel comfortable shaking hands with a male client. We know that during company events, the culinary offerings should include alternatives for those employees whose cultures do not eat beef or other types of foods. And of course, different cultural backgrounds often mean different religious backgrounds. Thus, we try not to make non-Christian employees feel excluded by having “Christmas” parties or scheduling events during those employees’ important religious holidays, and we accommodate employees’ beliefs by allowing days off for religious holidays, providing prayer breaks, broadening the dress code to allow for religion-based clothing preferences, etc.

Not being a “Trekkie” myself, I can’t identify any specific “Star Trek” episode where Captain Kirk had to pause in the mission of “going where no man [or woman] [or other gender] had gone before” to order a special vegetarian meal for Officer Spock, nor do I recall any instances when Kirk had to call time out from his inter-species romantic liaisons to cover for Spock while he had the day off from work for a Vulcan holiday. But hey, it could have happened. If the Starfleet’s Human–make that “Species”–Resources professionals were earning their keep, they would have made sure that the Crew Handbook addressed the need to accommodate the cultural and religious beliefs and practices of all employees–even the ill-fated, red-shirted, anonymous crew members who would accompany the show’s stars in landing expeditions. And if any members of Starfleet didn’t want to accommodate members of different species, I’d like to think that Mr. Spock would have told them that their opposition was “highly illogical.” After all, when it comes to adapting to changing workplace demographics, resistance is futile.

‘Transparent’ brings gender identity issues to forefront

February 13, 2015 - by: Kristin Starnes Gray 1 COMMENTS
Kristin Starnes Gray

Amazon’s streaming series Transparent follows Maura Pfefferman (born Morton Pfefferman and played by Jeffrey Tambor of Arrested Development fame), a retired political science professor and parent of three adult children, as she finally reveals to her family that she has always identified as a woman. The show’s creator, Jill Soloway, was inspired by her own father, who came out as a transgender woman. Behind the scenes, Soloway has gone to significant lengths to ensure that the story of Maura’s journey is treated with sensitivity and respect.  Transgender Symbol

For example, Soloway has enacted a “transfirmative action plan,” which has included hiring at least 20 transgender cast and crew members, more than 60 transgender extras, and two full-time transgender consultants. In addition, all the bathrooms on set are gender-neutral, and Soloway has distributed copies of Julia Serano’s trans memoir “Whipping Girl” to her cast and crew. Not only has the show’s subject matter and Soloway’s hiring/workplace practices broken new ground, but Transparent also has made Amazon the first digital streaming service to win a Golden Globe for Best Television Series with Tambor also taking home the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Television Series, Musical, or Comedy.

Along with depictions of transgender individuals in popular media like in Transparent and Orange is the New Black, gender identity issues in the workplace are gaining increasing attention as of late. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) announced in 2012 its position that discrimination based on an individual’s transgender status (also known as gender identity discrimination) is discrimination because of sex and, therefore, a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Indeed, the EEOC’s Strategic Enforcement Plan lists LGBT-related sex discrimination charges as an enforcement priority for 2013 to 2016. The agency has indicated that it received 160 sex-gender identity/transgender charges in 2013 and 140 through the third quarter of 2014.  According to the EEOC, on behalf of individuals filing such charges, it obtained $421,701 in monetary benefits in 2013 and $149,933 through the third quarter of 2014.

Federal employees also may file sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination complaints with the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), which receives and investigates allegations of prohibited personnel practices under Title V of the Civil Service Act. The OSC has taken the position that allegations of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity may constitute prohibited personnel actions; therefore, it will accept and investigate complaints of sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination filed by federal employees.

In Transparent, Maura is in the early phase of her transition, dealing with such issues as hormones and handling awkward encounters with former acquaintances from her pre-transition days, all while trying to guide her often self-absorbed and self-destructive adult children onto the right paths. At the same time, employers and the legal community are in the early stages of addressing transgender and gender identity issues in the modern workplace.  There are surely many new developments on the horizon.  In the meantime, this blogger will continue to tune in (or binge watch, thanks to online streaming) as Maura navigates her transition with courage and a sense of humor.


4 slam-dunk tips for HR pros from Spurs’ NBA success

June 16, 2014 - by: Matt Gilley 0 COMMENTS
Matt Gilley

I’m a Wake Forest basketball fan from way back, so I’ve followed Tim Duncan’s professional career closely since 1998. All the sports fans out there are well aware by now that Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs won their fifth NBA title last night in convincing fashion over the Miami Heat. All the Spurs’ titles have come during Duncan’s career, and Duncan has only known one coach–Greg Popovich–since San Antonio selected him first in the 1997 NBA draft. shutterstock_173318291

The Spurs’ success since 1998 offers several tips and pointers for HR professionals. I list several below, in no particular order:

Continuity. The Spurs have maintained a remarkably consistent core during their 17-year run of success. They have had one coach, and Duncan has anchored the team in the middle the entire time. Early in their run, the Spurs built around Duncan and Hall of Famer David Robinson, a lifer in his own right. After Robinson retired, the Spurs’ core has included Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, also Spurs lifers with no plans to head anywhere.

Acceptance of change. The fluid motion offense that gutted the Miami Heat bears little resemblance to the more plodding offenses the Spurs ran earlier in their run. At that point, Duncan and Robinson controlled the paint, defense was king, and their ball movement was focused on passing through Duncan or Robinson in the post. Today, the Spurs employ a more up-tempo style that features Tony Parker’s lightning quickness.

Assimilation of new talent. While the core remains the same, the NBA salary cap forces all teams to make some hard roster decisions. The Spurs have thrived by grafting serviceable, hardworking under-the-radar players onto their roster’s core. However, they do so by being choosy about who they bring in–it’s generally recognized around the league that you are going to change to become a Spur; they won’t change just to land you.

Casting broad new for talent. I suppose you could file this one under “diversity.” The Spurs have players on their roster from the United States, the U.S. Virgin Islands, France, Italy, Brazil, Canada, Argentina, and Australia. This is not happenstance, nor is it done for its own sake. First, the Spurs’ style lends itself well to players who grew up in the international game. Second–and let’s face it–San Antonio is a fine place but not on par with endorsement-rich NBA cities like New York, Chicago, LA, or Miami. The Spurs have to look for folks who fit their style and are hungry for a chance to play in the league. They’ve done quite well, thank you very much.

Overall, then, you may look to the Spurs for your own purposes. Do you have core talent committed to the organization and your mission? Are these folks accepting of change? Similarly, when you bring in new talent can you get them to buy in to your way of doing things? Finally, are you looking in all–and I mean all–the right places to find the talent you need? It’s not easy, but here’s an example to all for how you can make it work.

Clip[pers] his tongue!

April 28, 2014 - by: Josh Sudbury 0 COMMENTS
Josh Sudbury

This past week the biggest story in the NBA was not the excitement of the first round of the playoffs, but the comments L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling allegedly made to his girlfriend. In an audiotape released Friday by TMZ, a man (allegedly Sterling) is heard chastising his girlfriend for associating with black people and bringing them to his team’s games.  ThatsRacist Several authors and bloggers have already written about the deplorable worldview espoused by the man in the tape alleged to be Sterling so I won’t rehash the obvious. Indeed, the audio reveals personal views one might expect to be held by resisters of the civil rights movement, but not by that of the owner of an NBA franchise 50 years after the passage of Title VII. But a different lesson about our times can be learned from the incident, which concerns the prevalence of audio and video records in today’s world. In our technology-laden society, every smart phone doubles as a camera, tape recorder, video camera, word processor, etc. You name it, and your phone—and your employees’ phones—can probably do it, including secretly recording conversations between themselves and supervisors. On top of that, it takes almost zero technical savvy for someone to make a recording and post it to YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, or any number of social media sites instantaneously. The majority of states permit the secret recording of conversations so long as at least one party to the conversation consents to the recording. In those states, such an audio recording could wind up as evidence against the company in court or before a government agency. In the Clippers’ case, it’s the owner himself who is alleged to have made the statements. So, it’s obvious that his statements reflect directly on the organization. But would the result be any better if one of your mid-level supervisors was caught on tape making an off-color joke or sexually charged comment about another employee? The answer is simply no. In addition to the potential liability that may arise from such statements in a discrimination or harassment lawsuit, the company almost certainly would lose the verdict in the court of public opinion. All hope is not lost, however. Employers can minimize the potential for such occurrences by committing to provide anti-discrimination and anti-harassment training for their managers on at least an annual basis. You should also remain in contact with your workforce and get to know your managers. Many times, when a manager is caught on tape making these kinds of statements, it isn’t the first time. Being present in the workplace will help you identify potential bad apples as well as remind your employees to be on guard because their words and actions are being noticed. Finally, employers can adopt and enforce policies prohibiting employees from making secret records in the workplace. Such policies help foster open communications in the workplace and protect confidential or trade secret information. Employers, however, would be wise to consult with outside counsel before implementing or enforcing such a policy to ensure it doesn’t encroach on employee rights. In the hopefully unlikely event you have an employee who sympathizes with Mr. Sterling’s alleged views, nothing short of a muzzle may be appropriate.

Robertson a sitting duck after controversial quotes released

December 19, 2013 - by: Josh Sudbury 0 COMMENTS
Josh Sudbury

Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson and his family are most likely not enjoying a Happy Happy Happy Holiday after his recent GQ interview hit newsstands. In the interview, Robertson is quoted as saying:

“It seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.”

When asked what he considered sinful, Robertson elaborated:

“Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men . . . .”

[For greater context and to get Robertson’s full quotes on the subject, I encourage you to read the entire GQ article, which you can find here.]

In response, A&E Networks put the eldest Robertson on “indefinite hiatus” from filming, issuing a statement saying the network is “extremely disappointed” to read Robertson’s comments, which A&E notes “are based on his own personal beliefs and not reflected in the series Duck Dynasty.”

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Dress for success

October 13, 2013 - by: Josh Sudbury 0 COMMENTS
Josh Sudbury

This season, the network that originally brought you “COPS” is giving the oversaturated police-television show market a somewhat fresh take through its cop comedy called “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” The show stars Andy Samberg as Det. Jake Peralta, a “talented, but carefree” (Fox’s words—not mine) detective dealing with his new hard-nosed, rule-following boss, played by Andre Braugher. You may remember Samberg from his digital shorts on Saturday Night Live, or as one-third of the comedy music act, Lonely Island. While the premise of Samberg’s new television venture is pretty standard, the show itself has so far proved funny and entertaining.

The show draws a good bit of its humor from the seemingly awkward to downright inappropriate workplace interactions among the cast members. From attempted interoffice relationships to inappropriate nicknames, to openly gossiping about the new boss’s assumed sexual preferences, just the pilot episode racks up quite a stack of complaints for the NYPD’s human resources department to wade through. But buried hidden behind the more overtly inappropriate conduct was a workplace issue that has recently been brought to the forefront of HR law—employee dress codes.

In the pilot episode, the new captain implements a requirement that all male detectives wear a necktie. While seemingly neutral on its face, such requirements can cause an employer to run afoul of employment laws when such requirements infringe on an employee’s religious convictions. Although Samberg’s character combats the necktie requirement by making snide comments and sarcastic remarks (such as handing neckties to fellow detectives as awards for correctly answering questions and referring to a murder scene as a “10-tie situation”), in the real world, an employee whose sincerely held religious beliefs prevent him or her from complying with a dress code policy may be entitled to a reasonable accommodation.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit recently tackled a similar issue in a suit arising out of clothing company Abercrombie & Fitch’s policy prohibiting its salespeople from wearing any sort of headgear. In June 2011, a federal district court in Oklahoma granted summary judgment to the EEOC, suing on behalf of a female Muslim plaintiff, who alleged Abercrombie failed to hire her for a sales position after she wore a hijab (traditional Muslim headscarf) during her job interview. The EEOC claimed the company engaged in unlawful religious discrimination by failing to exempt the applicant from the policy based on her religious beliefs. The 10th Circuit reversed the lower court’s ruling, however, based on the undisputed fact that the female applicant never directly informed her interviewer that she was a Muslim nor specifically requested an accommodation based on her religious beliefs. As a result, the 10th Circuit’s ruling vacated a jury verdict of $20,000 against the company. It also created a split amongst federal circuit courts of appeals regarding which party bears the burden to bring to light the need for a specific accommodation for religious reasons. Several experts and commentators have noted that the U.S. Supreme Court may choose to review the case to resolve the split if the EEOC decides to pursue an appeal.

But while we wait for a potential resolution from the Supreme Court, employers should use this case as a reminder that employees whose sincerely held religious beliefs conflict with company policy may be entitled to a reasonable accommodation if doing so wouldn’t create an undue burden on the employer.

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