A funny thing happens when your value system is at work. It makes you blind to the issue at hand, as reflected by this letter to “Ask A Manager” about a woman who complains of discrimination in the workplace.
Does this have an impact on women? Obviously, as they are treated differently, even though the company, according to the description, seems quite fair and accommodating otherwise, contradicting claims that this is just a subterfuge for sex discrimination. And as the “answer” to the question, as well as some hot takes from the twitters, suggest, this is a slam dunk violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Law of 1964.
What makes this particularly controversial, and disturbing, is that men refusing to be alone with, to travel with, women is the backlash to #MeToo. The only certain way to avoid being falsely accused of sexual impropriety is to be in a position that would allow for such a claim.
But this isn’t a #MeToo problem, but a religious accommodation issue. If these men hold sincere religious beliefs that it would be improper to be alone with a woman not his wife, then these beliefs are protected both by the First Amendment as well as Title VII. Even though the old-school religions like Christianity are largely dismissed these days in favor of the shiny new ones like #MeToo, they remain protected. And the employer is required by law to make reasonable accommodation of religious beliefs.
While this would have an obvious impact on women, though the examples given in the “answer” are stretched and oddly assumptive, is the solution that any man whose religious beliefs forbid being alone with a woman should be forbidden from being alone with anyone? That would punish the man for his religious beliefs by denying him the ability to be alone with another guy, as his religion would permit. It would also impair the employer’s needs, by dictating personnel decisions and managements prerogatives when there was no religious accommodation justification to do so.
The point isn’t whether discrimination on the basis of religion trumps sex discrimination, or whether the company gets to decide how best to spend its money and deploy its staff. After all, a road trip that only has work needs for two people would be bumped up to three if one was a woman, meaning that one person would have nothing to do but still be paid. Featherbedding is back in fashion?
The problem is that this is hardly “plain and simple,” or a “per se violation of Title VII,” and suggesting so reflects not merely a grossly simplistic legal approach, but a value-laden lie. Sure, many view religion as silly zombie nonsense at best, and a subterfuge for “real” discrimination at worst, but that’s merely a value choice. They feel that sex discrimination is more important than religious discrimination, and have no problem dismissing people’s religious beliefs in favor of their own.
But what if this wasn’t a matter of a sincerely-held religious belief, but self-protection by men who refuse to put themselves in the position of being accused of creating a hostile work environment, if not sexual harassment?
Putting aside the baked-in assumption, inter alia, that managers are all men, rather than women, which might seem a bit sexist on its own, it’s not hard to see why this could be viewed as a problem, but is it an irrational problem or the logical by-product of irrational times? The simplistic view is that if you don’t want to be accused of sexual assault, don’t sexually assault anyone. But then, that fails to acknowledge either false accusations or differences in sensibility, where the particularly sensitive woman finds harassment under every rock.
A “poor performance” by a female employee seems to be a likely candidate for a claim of sex discrimination these days, given the ease of justifying everything negative as the product of discrimination, for which no victim shaming is allowed. These are difficult questions, with entirely reasonable positions on all sides. Anyone who tells you women win, “plain and simple,” is revealing their bias. There’s nothing simple about it.