Women have made tremendous progress in the past four or five decades in the workplace, overcoming obstacles that had been in place for centuries, if not longer. Many hurdles remain, though, and some workplaces present far greater challenges than others. Wall Street is still, in many ways, a “boys’ club,” where women might not be expressly excluded but are also not always welcomed by the office culture. Twenty years ago, a group of women at a Wall Street financial company filed a lawsuit alleging sex discrimination, sexual harassment, and retaliation. Martens v. Smith Barney, Inc., No. 96-cv-03779, complaint (S.D.N.Y., May 20, 1996). The number of claimants grew to almost two thousand, and the defendant eventually paid out $150 million. The lawsuit brought some reforms to Wall Street’s culture, but sex discrimination in many forms remains a problem.
Sex discrimination in the workplace is prohibited under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2; the New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL), N.Y. Exec. L. § 296; and the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL), N.Y.C. Admin. Code § 8-107. The U.S. Supreme Court established sexual harassment as a form of unlawful sex discrimination in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57 (1986). Subsequent cases have established the right to bring sexual harassment claims as a collective or class action. See, e.g. Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Co., 130 F.3d 1287, 1304 (8th Cir. 1997) (“It should be obvious that the callous pattern and practice of sexual harassment…inevitably destroyed the self-esteem of the working women exposed to it.”)
The initial group of women who filed suit in Martens alleged multiple forms of sex discrimination that “transcend[ed] all aspects of employment.” Martens, complaint at 5. This included an applicant pool for brokers that favored men and “deliberately steer[ed] female applicants into the position of sales assistant,” which featured “duties…stereotypically assigned to women.” Id. at 6.