Often employers seek to portray the employee who files a discrimination claim as self-interested, pursuing the claim out of spite or greed. We, who do this work, know that righting discrimination is a socially valuable undertaking because a more diverse workplace benefits employees, clients, consumers, and the business itself. But remedying employment discrimination also has another, less visible effect on the employee’s children.
Over at Salon, Harvard Law Professor Lani Guinier has posted a chapter from her book “The Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America.” Professor Guinier traces the history of high-stakes testing from a means of democratizing opportunity, to, now, a means of entrenching the social order. She explains that the all-important (or so it would seem) SAT and LSAT don’t actually predict the kinds of grades people will get. Instead, the scores on tests are reliably tied to one thing only: how much money the test-taker’s family has. The irony is that, of course, these tests greatly influence admissions to college and law school, which, in turn, greatly influences the income that a kid is going to make in the future.
Figures that Guinier cites indicate that when family income escalates from approximately $20,000 to more than $200,000, SAT scores go up between 200 and 400 points. True, bridging this income divide in one generation is difficult. But the biggest gaps are at the low end of the income scale. The average SAT score for families of college-bound seniors with incomes of $20,000 or less is nearly75 points lower than that of families making $20,000 – $40,000. And 75 points can be the difference between getting accepted and rejected at college or graduate school.
So what does that mean for employment discrimination litigation? One of the most common kinds of employment discrimination lawsuits is a case about pay or promotion discrimination. Even though it may make sense to assume that the individual person who files the lawsuit has the most to gain if they win, we may want to think about discrimination cases more broadly. And we may want to think about it more broadly even though everything in the legal system is built around the idea that the case is only about the person who brings it.
Professor Guinier’s work suggests that we should think about discrimination more broadly because one of the greatest impacts that employment discrimination can have is on the children of the parents suffering the discrimination directly. After all, most Americans draw most of their income from their employment, and what they make directly shapes the opportunities their children have. Discriminating against employees thus has a multi-generational effect—denying educational opportunities and upward mobility to both the employee and the employee’s children. And this impact is most felt by the children of those who can least afford it, because at the lower end of the income scale, small differences have the greatest impact.
We laud parents who take care of their children. Paying employees what they deserve increases the likelihood of that their children will succeed. So why shouldn’t filing a discrimination complaint be considered putting your children first? In fact, that is what we hear from our clients all the time: that they realized they had to stand up and speak out for the sake of their families.