Taffy Brodesser-Akner is a terrific writer. I first became aware of her work when I read her profile of Gwyneth Paltrow in the New York Times Magazine and reached out to her to have coffee. Her voice is truly unique and she has an uncanny way of homing in on a topic with humanity and, in some cases, humor. She wrote an incredible, extensively reported piece last week about a culture of workplace harassment and unequal pay at Sterling Jewelers, Inc, the nation’s largest jewelry retailer (think Zales, Jared, Kay, and a dozen others) that was heartbreaking. Here’s a link to that piece and read below for the story behind the story…
Katie Couric: Taffy, what a great piece of journalism! How did you become interested in this subject?
Taffy Brodesser-Akner: My editors assigned the story to me after the 2017 Washington Post story by Drew Harwell. Back in 2014, Susan Antilla at the Times broke the story of the existence of the lawsuit, but Drew had newly public documents recounting the testimony of hundreds of women who spoke not just of pay and promotion disparity, which is the subject of the lawsuit, but of a culture of sexual harassment and coercion and even assault. I thought I’d do the next story, but I waited and waited, and nothing happened. The story became about why nothing happened. The suit is 14 years old. It shows no signs of being anywhere close to litigation proceedings, much less resolution.
Katie: Why do you think it took such a long time for a major publication to really dive into this class action suit?
Taffy: It was because of the forced arbitration agreement that all Sterling employees signed on their first day of employment. Arbitration, in which a dispute is resolved privately, is billed to employees as faster and more efficient. But it also helps the company keep its secrets. When secrets are kept, the behavior can perpetuate. In a lot of cases I heard about, the employees who did resolve their disputes then had to sign an NDA, so that they could never talk about it again.
Katie: At one point, you write about some of the complaints that were frankly really disgusting (group orgies, profane comments, rubbing up against women and telling them they should be flattered) and make clear that “these weren’t curated for maximum salaciousness.” You must have been shocked by what you heard!
Taffy: I was shocked! What kind of culture must a company have when there is abuse this extreme, and this uniform, across regions? It was just so awful, and so prevalent and so consistent. But then I was more shocked by how banal those allegations were for the women who made them. They’d become so used to it. For a lot of those women, it was their first job. They didn’t know that they were allowed to expect better.
Katie: The culture at all these companies was gruesomely sexist and misogynistic….how was it able to go on as long as it has?
Taffy: The legal system is designed, partially, as a threat: How will you feel when these allegations come to light? The promise of public shame or embarrassment or even jail time is a powerful motivator. When it’s private arbitration, it can go on forever and no one will know about it. The only reason we know about this at all was because of the arbitration rules affecting a class action—in class actions, some documents can become public. Sterling has fought hard to make this case not a class action.
Katie: What’s been the reaction to the piece?
Taffy: A lot of people have read it. A lot of tips on new information has come in. Some of the women affected are grateful. One told me that she didn’t realize just how widespread this had been and had always secretly blamed herself. Another told me that her friends and family never believed her about how bad the company had behaved toward her, but now they did. Many of them are happy that someone has told their story and they’ve seen the public reaction and they’re heartened by it. But just as many wonder what telling the story has done, and if it’s changed anything or if it ever will. I have the same questions.
Katie: It sounds as if the company has made some positive changes…what are they and do you think they’ll make a difference?
Taffy: They installed a woman CEO in 2017, and prior to that, they put in some systems to help with pay and promotion disparity. The people I interviewed said those things didn’t work as well as they were supposed to. Now there are women in the c-suites at that company, and on the board, and they say these problems don’t exist anymore (though they wouldn’t show me data). But I think if you have a lawsuit that’s outstanding that deals with your history, then you still do have these problems. Meaning the lawsuit is still your problem, right?
Katie: One of the saddest aspects is how damaged some of the women who worked there still are…they really loved their jobs in many ways, but the culture was just untenable. What was the most important thing you were trying to communicate?
Taffy: What was remarkable to me, after two years of interviews, was just how much the women were affected by what happened to them long ago. Some of these allegations are 20 years old; some of them 10. But the women still live with them, and they told me that watching the company work so hard to avoid litigation or to avoid an apology made it hard to move on. It struck me that women are as strong as men, but once you break any of us, part of us stays broken forever.