Thousands of women who worked for the largest retail jewelry company in the U.S. allege that they suffered wage and promotion discrimination, and more than 200 of them describe an atmosphere in which female employees endured unwanted sexual advances from male superiors at the company.
In newly released sworn statements by current and former employees of Sterling Jewelers Inc., whose parent company runs Kay Jewelers and Jared jewelry stores among others, women describe an atmosphere of pay secrecy in which men dominated positions of power and qualified women were routinely passed over for promotions and in some cases, even publicly demeaned.
In sworn statements, female employees also described male Sterling managers and executives who grabbed their bodies, propositioned them for sex, kissed them without their consent and spoke about women's bodies and about sex during company events.
The 249 statements, most of them by women, were collected as part of a class-action lawsuit originally filed in 2008 against the company, alleging it violated the Equal Pay Act and the Civil Rights Act. The allegations of sexual improprieties have been offered to show the workplace context in which the pay discrimination allegedly occurred.
Class counsel for the case, attorney Kalpana Kotagal, says descriptions of unwanted sexual advances are relevant to the gender discrimination claim, because they point to a pervasive culture of sexual intimidation at the company.
"We contend that this evidence of sexual harassment ... is directly relevant to claims of sexual discrimination," Kotagal told NPR.
Presenting evidence that the company knew of both pay disparities and sexual harassment of female employees, and did not act sufficiently to remedy them, could suggest "a lack of real concern about discrimination," Kotagal said.
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