Claire Wasserman, founder of Ladies Get Paid, a career development platform, is committed to closing the wage and leadership gap. If anyone is about equity and inclusion, it is Claire.
So imagine her disbelief when she was informed last October that she was being sued for sex discrimination.
“At that point, we were hosting events in 18 cities, including San Diego,” Wasserman says. “The idea was to provide a safe and comfortable environment for women—including female-identifying and non-binary people—to talk freely and honestly about the challenges they face at work.”
Breaking the Law
Yet by barring men, or not offering them the same drink discounts, Wasserman’s organization was unwittingly in violation of California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on sex, race or sexual orientation. The law was written broadly to cover as many disadvantaged groups as possible. Too broadly, it turns out.
As the law stands, men can sue for being excluded from women-only networking events, which is what the men claimed in the actions against Wasserman (there was a second lawsuit for another event in Los Angeles.) A man has also sued the Oakland A’s for not getting a sun hat on Mother’s Day, and another male even sued Donald Trump (before he was president) for not getting a discount at a Rancho Palos Verdes golf course as part of a breast cancer awareness promotion.
One lawyer is behind these four specific suits (he was the plaintiff in the Oakland A’s one), and he’s been part of 300 or so similar anti-discrimination actions. (We are not naming him or the plaintiffs to avoid raising their profile—or being trolled.) Trump, with his deep pockets, fought back and won on the grounds that raising breast cancer awareness is for the common good. But most defendants, including Wasserman, settle. (The Oakland A’s paid out $500,000, according to news accounts.)
“You have to settle because lawsuits are expensive, and if you lose you have to pay the plaintiff’s costs,” Wasserman explains, adding that she has no regrets about her women-only policy.
Legislators, the ACLU and others in California are talking about fixing the civil rights law; many states have provisions for disadvantaged groups. But amending laws is not easy, particularly during our polarized times.
Now that the lawsuits are behind her, Wasserman wants to focus her time and energy on helping her members—20,000 and counting—to create a more equitable society. “I’m stronger, I’m committed, and my eyes have been opened to the need for change at the public policy level,” she says. “But honestly, you don’t just snap out of seven months of pure stress and intimidation. I’m working on it though.”
She has also changed her company’s policy in California and across the country. “If there’s one thing other women’s groups can learn from my experience, it’s that if they don’t know their state’s laws, they should play it safe and never promote an event as women-only or ladies’ nights—especially on social media,” she adds. “Sadly, there are people out there waiting for you to make a mistake.”
To help defray their legal costs as well as grow Ladies Get Paid, Wasserman and co-founder Ashley Louise started a crowdfunding campaign. Learn more at their IFundWomen page.