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Workplace Sex Discrimination: Phillips v. Martin Marietta Corp.

Greg de la Cruz works at NCR Corp's R&D center in the Philippines and is the author of two published titles on Amazon.

There is a long line of cases decided by the U.S. Supreme Court taking on the issue of discrimination based on sex.

There is a long line of cases decided by the U.S. Supreme Court taking on the issue of discrimination based on sex.

Could you imagine not being hired by a company because have a preschool-aged kid? 50 years ago, this occured when Ida Phillips, who applied for a position at Martin Marietta Corp., was not even considered and was told by the company that they were not accepting job applications from women with pre-school age children.

I feel fortunate to have grown up in a generation where a woman raising children while working a full-time day job was considered normal. I don’t know about my classmates at the time, but it was clear to me when I was in primary school that it was pretty ordinary to have both of my parents report to their jobs in the daytime while I was stuck at school. It was so normal that I didn’t even think the question, "what do your parents do?" had to be preceded by, "do both your parents have jobs?"

This disparity just goes to show how far 1971 is from the 2000s, when I was too young to think about social issues such as sex-based discrimination. The Supreme Court of the United States has decided a long line of cases tackling discrimination based on sex, and with every decided case, more social justice is brought forward. That momentary change eventually becomes a norm, as subsequent controversies brought forth are decided based on precedent, and a ripple effect ensues.

Back in 1971, Ida Phillips was discriminated against based on her sex. She was the plaintiff for the landmark case, Phillips v. Martin Marietta Corp.

Phillips v. Martin Marietta Corp.

In 1971, Ida Phillips was a woman with children in preschool, and she applied for a job at Martin Marietta Corp., an aerospace company that was focused on making missiles. Martin Marietta Corp. didn’t even give her application any consideration because it was not accepting job applications from women with preschool-age children. What was curious, though, was that the company did employ men with pre-school age children.

The rationale for the company imposing this kind of policy was probably pretty obvious at the time. If it were to hire women with pre-school-aged children, that probably meant they were more likely to take time off or get distracted by their obligation to take care of their kids. Women in the 1970s were more defaulted to being the ones to watch over the kids during their early ages. Being a housewife was far more common in the 70s when one person’s income was enough to support a family. These days, the income of two is often not enough.

Ida Phillips filed a case in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, alleging that she had been denied employment because of her sex. But to her dismay, the District Court granted a summary judgment in favor of Martin Marietta Corp., concluding that there was no bias against women; in fact, as much as 70–75 percent of the applicants for the company position Philipps was applying for were women, and 75–80 percent of those hired for the position were, in fact, women.

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How do we manage unconscious gender-sex bias?

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The Court’s Ruling

The Supreme Court ruled to vacate and remand the case back to the lower court for "fuller development of the record and for further consideration."

The Court said that the Court of Appeals committed an error in reading Section 703(a) of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which requires that persons of like qualifications be given employment opportunities irrespective of their sex. The appellate court erred in reading the section as permitting one hiring policy for women and another for men—each having pre-school age children.

However, this was not to say that there could be no room for distinction: "The existence of such conflicting family obligations," the Court said, "if demonstrably more relevant to job performance for a woman than for a man, could arguably be a basis for distinction under Section 703€ of the Act. But that is a matter of evidence tending to show that the condition in question is a bona fide occupational qualification reasonably necessary to the normal operation of that particular business enterprise."

Eradicating Unconscious Bias

The labor industry landscape in the 1970s was worlds away from where it stands today. We now live in a world where we see women in the highest positions of both government and private enterprise. But that’s not to say that no more work is left to be done when it comes to promoting and implementing gender equality. There continue to be industries where female representation is lacking.

The tech industry is an obvious one; the top 5–10 companies in the world are each led by a male CEO. There was that one time where a billion-dollar tech startup, Theranos, was about to cause major disruption to the healthcare industry and was led a female CEO, but the Theranos story ended up being an extremely bad example to follow, as its founder, Elizabeth Holmes, now faces trial for multiple counts of fraud.

My assessment is that the current society we have today isn’t yet in a place where unconscious sex-based bias doesn’t exist anymore. When you think tech billionaire, do female faces even pop into your head? The Phillips case was revolutionary for its time—do we need a similar case in the public’s spotlight for us to further more change in the way we view working women?

I grew up with both of my parents working full time. But when I turned eleven, my dad unexpectedly died because of an accident. This left my mom to be the full-time breadwinner of the family, which then was just me and her. I know firsthand that a woman has no inherent deficiencies that make her less qualified to do a job than a man.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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