“You Don’t Need The Money—You Have a Nice Engagement Ring”

On Behalf of | October 15, 2014 | Gender Discrimination, Harassment

Growing up I loved watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show on Nick-at-Nite.  Mary Richards, the show’s protagonist, was a single woman in her early 30s working as the associate producer of a nightly news show in Minneapolis in the early 1970s.  In one episode, she learns that she is making $50 less per week than the man who previously held her job.  She confronts her boss about it, who admits that she does the job better than he did, but rationalizes the pay difference because her predecessor had a family to support; Mary does not.  Unable to respond at first, Mary leaves his office and returns to her desk.  Seconds later, she says “ah-ha!” and returns to her boss’s office to explain forcefully that he doesn’t pay the man with five children more than the man with three or the married man more than the bachelor because “financial need has nothing to do with it.”

At the end of the episode, Mary got a $50 per week raise, but the problem of unlawfully underpaying women based on a belief that they do not “need the money” remains nearly 35 years later.  Even today, when women account for nearly half of the American workforce, employers too often operate under an antiquated assumption: men must work; women choose to.  The presumption is that a man’s role is to work and it’s inextricably intertwined with the man himself; unlike women, men can’t not work.

For women, on the other hand, the perception is that they work only if they need the money or have the time.  Many employers act as though they are doing women “a favor” by allowing them to work and, unfortunately, they value their work accordingly.  For example, in one case we filed against Merck, one of our clients was told by her boss that she should stay at home after her maternity leave because  her “husband makes enough money.”  The message Merck sent to her was that, regardless of how well she performed, it was not her responsibility to work and the company did not value it.

Men are not perceived as asking “too much” when they advocate for a promotion or a raise.  But, as CEO Satya Nadella’s comments reminded us so vividly, women are held to a different standard and should be happy simply to have a job—they should not be concerned about advancing their careers or getting paid fairly.  Another client, Donna Kassman, received a more explicit message from KPMG, who told her after cutting her salary by $20,000 that she didn’t “need the money” because she had “a nice engagement ring.”  In essence, KPMG said that, as a woman, Donna already had all she needed in her engagement ring and what it represented, so she shouldn’t concern herself with being paid fairly.

Unlike the fictional Mary Richards who got a raise before the end of the episode, Donna did not get KPMG to pay her fairly within thirty minutes.  Instead, because of this and numerous other incidents indicating that the firm would not give her the pay or promotion she deserved, Donna eventually had to file a lawsuit.  Because of this case—because of Donna—approximately 9,000 women at KPMG have received notice that, nationwide, KPMG has failed to pay them fairly.  These women have the ability to join together with Donna and each other to hold KPMG accountable for attempting to pad their pockets with money they should have been paying America’s women and families.  Here’s hoping that their ending, like Mary Richards’, is a happy one.

Update: More than 18 months later, Donna Kassman’s case is ongoing. Since this post, nearly 1300 women signed their names to join the collective action under the Equal Pay Act, challenging the fairness of KPMG’s pay, and the fight for fair pay for women at KPMG continues.