Adila Chowan’s victory over racist sexism affects women “not just in South Africa but internationally as well”

Adila Chowan

Last week, the North Gauteng High Court of South Africa handed down a decision in Adila Chowan vs. Mark Lamberti & Co. Adila Chowan sued her former employers – Associated Motor Holdings and Imperial Holdings – and her boss, Mark Lamberti, for economic loss, suffered through wrongful and intentional acts, and for injuries to her reputation and her sense of self-worth, or dignity. Adila Chowan, an Indian Muslim woman, claimed that she was bypassed for promotions, for which she was eminently qualified, in favor of white male candidates. When pressed for reasons, Mark Lamberti told Adila Chowan that she was “a female, employment equity, technically competent, they would like to keep her but if she wants to go she must go, others have left this management and done better outside the company, and that she required three to four years to develop her leadership skills.” In court, Adila Chowan explained, “Because I pride myself on the fact that I am a qualified professional chartered accountant. I had built my career. I had been a CFO. And in Mark Lamberti’s eyes I was being narrowed down because of my colour and being female.” The court agreed with Adila Chowan and found in her favor.

The Court found that Adila Chowan had struggled in a toxic work environment in which white males could reduce her, repeatedly and with impunity, to the status of racialized sexualized object. At the same time, the Court found that, when Adila Chowan filed a grievance, the process was corrupted by the involvement of precisely the supervisor she was accusing. From the smallest detail to the largest structure, everything was wrong.

In his decision, Judge Pieter Meyer noted, “The present matter, in my view, is a classroom example of an appropriate case where delictual liability should be imposed. There are ample public-policy reasons in favour of imposing liability. The constitutional rights to equality and against unfair discrimination are compelling normative considerations. There is a great public interest in ensuring that the existence of systemic discrimination and inequalities in respect of race and gender be eradicated. As blatant and patent as discrimination was in the days of apartheid, so subtle and latent does it also manifests itself today. The protection afforded to an employee, such as Ms Chowan, by the PDA [Protected Disclosures Act] against occupational detriments by her employer on account of having made a protected disclosure that was ‘likely’ to show unfair racial and gender discrimination, is one of the measures taken by the legislature to eradicate the existence of systemic discrimination and inequalities. If employers are too easily insulated from claims for harms, such as the occupational detriments to which Ms Chowan was subjected to on account of having made a protected disclosure to her employer, they would have little incentive to conduct themselves in a way that complies with the provisions of s 3 of the PDA.”

“As blatant and patent as discrimination was in the days of apartheid, so subtle and latent does it also manifests itself today.”

That “subtle and latent” discrimination doesn’t end with Court. Read the articles following the Court decision, and, with rare exception, the focus is on Mark Lamberti and whatever will he do now. One article has a photo of Adila Chowan. All the others picture Mark Lamberti. Adila Chowan has noted that Lamberti apologized to the media, never to her. In reflecting on the case, Adila Chowan said, “For me, I was trying to come out there and tell women that you can make a difference, and you can be heard and can stand up for yourself … Remember, being an Indian Muslim woman, you are seen as marginalised and [you are] basically invisible behind the scarf … This is not just in South Africa but internationally as well, where you see a differentiation between [the attitudes towards] men and women.”

Adila Chowan has waged a mighty struggle at the crossroads of racism and sexism, and she has won, and yet, somehow, even now, she must struggle, again, to have her name and her story told. Adila Chowan is the story. This is Adila Chowan’s story. Remember that.

(Photo Credit: Mail & Guardian)

The Big Box Store

Betty Dukes, front, and co-plaintiffs

When my partner and I were on our honeymoon, in upstate New York, we were craving a set of playing cards. We drove around this big “small town” and saw a familiar sign: “Wal-Mart.”  Unperturbed, my partner drove right into the parking lot.  I told him in no uncertain terms that I wasn’t going in and he wasn’t either.  He started laughing, but it died in his throat when he saw the scowl on my face.

In 2005, I assisted a law school professor on a paper she was writing on the issues of employment-based sex discrimination. My task was to read through hundreds of declarations by women who either worked or work at Wal-Mart as part of a class action suit against the world’s largest private sector employer and summarize each declaration.  These women not only had the courage and conviction to come forward, but many did at the expense of being chastised by their community.

Monday’s Supreme Court ruling in Wal-Mart v. Dukes essentially destroys class actions against corporate America.  As a result, the most marginalized sector of the labor force – working-class to poor women-will suffer the most.

In rural and small town America, Wal-Mart is one of the biggest, if not only, sustainable employer. While reading the declarations, I learned of single moms who sustained a family of four.  Many of these women looked at Wal-Mart as a place to grow, to become educated, and create a better life for their family.  They thought the story of Sam Walton, an up-by-his-bootstraps narrative revered by Wal-Mart as the archetype of the American dream, would apply to them.  But theirs was a dream deferred, as they watched their male cohorts, who often worked the same amount of hours, obtain higher pay and quicker promotions.

With the Supreme Court’s decision, the last vestiges of that dream may have vanished. True, the Court did not decide the substantive issue of whether Wal-Mart discriminated on the basis of gender. But by preventing women from forming a class, they eviscerated the only effective tool in confronting a corporation whose revenues dwarf the GDP of many small countries. Now, each individual class member will have to come forward and sue Wal-Mart (an unlikely scenario), or the 1.6 million women will need to create smaller classes based on commonality other than gender.  In the latter scenario, it is almost certain that this class too will be challenged, and challenged again, until the class is so small, making it not worth the money and effort.

Sadly, Monday’s decision follows a long history of rejecting gender as a potential class against corporations. Decisions like Wal-Mart urges us to think of how we cannot rely on the legal system to recognize bias in corporate structures. The power is up to the consumers, advocates, journalists, activists, artists to make Wal-Mart, and other corporations listen to their constituents.  So, we found playing cards in a locally run business a few blocks from the glowing Wal-Mart sign.

 

(Photo Credit 1: Above the Law) (Photo Credit 2: BusinessWomen)