Meet the women suing America’s biggest companies over equal pay

Allison Gamba thought she had done everything right.

She went to business school. She snagged a coveted seat at the New York Stock Exchange. She regularly turned mediocre stocks into top-performing investments for Goldman Sachs. She networked, she schmoozed, she even learned to golf — whatever it took to break into the insular boys club of investment banking.

So when Gamba read a Bloomberg article about the latest round of promotions at Goldman Sachs in 2010, she was devastated to see her name missing from the list. At 35, she had put in nine years at the company. She later pulled her boss aside on the trading floor and asked him if he had nominated her for managing director.

He hadn’t.

“I would have been a laughing stock if I had nominated you,” she says he told her.

Gamba was furious. At that moment, she says, she realized how pointless it all was. It didn’t matter that, a year earlier, she generated a department record of $9.5 million from the low-performing stocks her boss assigned to her. It didn’t matter that she was already doing the job of a managing director, overseeing 15 other traders at the New York Stock Exchange. It didn’t even matter that she was one of the top performers in the equities department. She would never be a managing director at Goldman Sachs, she thought. No woman in her division had ever gotten that far.

“I just knew I wasn’t going to get promoted anymore. My head was up against the glass ceiling,” Gamba told Vox by phone from her home in the suburbs of Philadelphia. The now-43-year-old former stock trader believes she was penalized for being a woman and a mother who had taken maternity leave twice. Gamba said she later watched as a male colleague was promoted to managing director, even though, she says, he generated less revenue for the firm than she did. In the years that followed, Gamba watched other men bypass her, too. They were essentially paid twice as much to do the same job she was already doing, she says, and everyone knew it.

Gamba didn’t leave quietly, though. She went to court. She joined two other women in a class action lawsuit against Goldman Sachs in 2013. The lawsuit, which represents 3,000 other women who worked or currently work at the company, accuses the firm of systematically paying women less than men for doing the same work, a form of gender discrimination under the Civil Rights Act.

Allison Gamba siting in her living room with her dog.
“I just knew I wasn’t going to get promoted anymore. My head was up against the glass ceiling,” Gamba says.
Hannah Yoon for Vox

“Goldman Sachs denies the allegations in the lawsuit and is aggressively contesting the class claims,” a company spokesperson wrote in a statement to Vox. Both sides are preparing for trial.

Goldman Sachs is one of several major American companies being sued by more than two dozen women for equal pay in lawsuits that cut across a wide swath of industries. Most of these women are fighting for high-level leadership roles long held by men, and they’re accusing companies including Twitter, Microsoft, Google, Disney, and Nike of paying women less than men or passing them over for promotions.

Vox spoke with several of these women and reviewed hundreds of pages of court files related to cases of equal pay and gender discrimination. Despite the differences in their work, the women’s stories were largely the same: Their careers reportedly stalled when they reached a certain level in the corporate hierarchy, and if they complained about it, they said they were punished for it. They argue the pay gap has put them behind men, perhaps for the rest of their careers.

According to court documents, one senior manager in Disney’s music publishing division found out that she was making $25,000 less than the lowest-paid man at her level. She’s been working there for 15 years. A footwear developer at Nike complained to human resources that she was paid far less than men in her position and says the HR manager accused her of “crying wolf.”

At Twitter, a software engineer said she was put on indefinite leave after complaining to the CEO about gender bias. (In a statement to Vox, a spokesperson for Disney said the firm has “robust” pay equity policies in place. “The lawsuit’s generalized allegations to the contrary are ill-informed and unfounded, and we look forward to presenting our response to the individual claims in court at the appropriate time.” A spokesperson for Twitter also denied the gender bias allegations. Nike did not respond to Vox’s request for comment.)

These cases represent a sea change in equal pay suits, which once were mostly filed on behalf of women working low-wage jobs in the retail industry. In the past ten years, legal experts say they have seen more professional, white-collar women taking employers to court. “It hardly ever happened in the 1990s,” says Kelly Dermody, an employment lawyer representing several of the plaintiffs. “There’s a more robust sense of urgency now to challenge [systemic] misconduct in the workplace.”

Experts say part of the reason for this shift is that women are starting to break into the highest-paying corporate jobs (in tech and finance, for example), which have long been held by men. In 1995, none of the Fortune 500 companies had female CEOs; in 2018, there were 24 women who worked as chief executives in those companies. It’s progress, and yet it’s not at all representative of the gender balance across the Fortune 500 workforce. As women continue climbing the corporate ladder, they can see the barriers keeping women out of the C-suite.

Women are also more aware of the pay gap now than they were even a few years ago. About a quarter of working women say they’ve been paid less than a man for doing the same job, according to a 2017 Pew Research survey. That’s more than double the share of women who said the same thing four years earlier.

So it’s not that the gender pay gap is new: Women have been making roughly 80 cents for every dollar a man makes for the past 15 years — a disparity that is even larger between women of color and white men. But more women are noticing gender discrimination now. They’re talking more about pay with their colleagues. They’re hearing female coworkers describe similar challenges. And they’re watching other women take legal action, giving them courage to do the same.

The wage gap follows women throughout their careers

Kelly Ellis said getting a job at Google was a dream come true.

The 35-year-old software engineer was hired by the tech company in 2010 to work on products such as Google Plus. During the hiring process, Google asked what she earned as a back-end software engineer for Current TV, where she worked at the time. The company then offered her the same salary.

It was a salary level Google typically offered to new college graduates (roughly $106,000 a year), according to a lawsuit she filed in December 2017 in San Francisco Superior Court. Yet Ellis had four years of experience working in back-end software engineering, so she qualified for roughly $124,000 a year.

A few weeks after starting her job at Google’s Mountain View, California, headquarters, the company hired a male software engineer to join Ellis’s team. In her complaint, she alleges that he had less relevant job experience than she did, so Ellis looked up his salary level in the internal employee directory. He was hired at the level above hers, even though he graduated the same year she did and had less experience as a back-end software engineer.

In her lawsuit against Google, Kelly Ellis says that she may never catch up to male colleagues after being paid less early in her career.
Courtesy of Kelly Ellis

“I was really unhappy and frustrated and annoyed,” Ellis said by phone from the Bay Area. After six months, she asked for a promotion. In her complaint, she alleges that she was told it was too soon.

Google did not respond to a request for comment from Vox, and the company did not specifically address Ellis’s allegations in court documents.

“Women see pay discrimination the moment they enter the workforce,” says Shannon Williams, who leads the equal pay campaign for the nonprofit group Equal Rights Advocates. A 2013 study by the American Association of University Women found that women get paid 6.6 percent less than men in their first jobs, even after considering factors such as job location, occupation, college major, and number of hours worked. That sets them up to make less money for years to come.

One of the main reasons the pay gap is so persistent, according to experts, is the routine practice of asking job applicants about their salary history.

Businesses often decide what to pay new hires based partly (or entirely) on how much they earned at their last jobs. Because women are generally paid less than their male coworkers, for reasons that include gender discrimination, asking female job candidates about their past salaries nearly guarantees that the wage disparity will continue throughout their careers.

Ellis was eventually promoted to a level 4 and then a level 5 engineer, but says she was always a step behind the man who’d gotten a head start.

Kelly Ellis’s complaint against Google alleges that she was eventually promoted, but by that point, her male colleagues were ahead, “ensuring that she would never catch up on the gender pay gap.”
An excerpt from the complaint against Google filed by Kelly Ellis and other plaintiffs.
Amanda Northrop/Vox

Ellis eventually left Google for a job at Medium in 2014. She suspected at the time that she was treated differently at Google because she was a woman, but she wasn’t certain. It wasn’t until 2017 that she realized her experience might not be unique.

The US Department of Labor’s 2017 audit of Google found “systemic compensation disparities against women” across the entire company. Ellis also learned of a spreadsheet that Google employees had created for men and women to share their salaries. Though it reflected only 2 percent of the workforce, it showed women made less at almost every level.

“I realized how massive the discrimination really was,” Ellis said. So she agreed to join a lawsuit with three other Google employees later that year. Though Google did not respond to Vox’s inquiry about the lawsuit, the company has denied gender bias allegations in the past. In March, the company said an internal pay study showed that men were actually paid less than women; the study did not check whether women were hired at a lower pay grade than men with similar qualifications, as Ellis alleges.

Ellis and the other plaintiffs are in the process of gathering evidence to get class action status for their case, allowing them to seek compensation and damages for up to 8,200 other women who have worked or currently work at Google in similar positions.

“I’m not the type of person who likes to back down,” Ellis said.

Promotions elude women, even when they ask

It’s widely believed that women make less than men because they don’t negotiate for higher salaries as often as men do. While older research supports this idea, things have changed.

New research suggests that women do negotiate for raises and promotions as often as men, but they are less likely to get them. And often, they are penalized for asking.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked for promotions and been turned down,” Holly Muenchow, a software developer at Microsoft, told Vox.

Muenchow, 39, has been working at the tech giant for 17 years and is one of three women suing the company for equal pay. She is arguing that Microsoft has created a hostile culture toward women.

Muenchow alleges that managers expect women to conform to certain gender stereotypes by policing their tone of voice, according to documents filed in federal court in 2016 in Washington state. Women who work at the company are often labeled as “too aggressive” when they speak up in meetings, the court filings claim, but men are allowed to “routinely interrupt or talk over women without criticism.”

According to court filings, Holly Muenchow, a software developer at Microsoft, accused her employer of encouraging women “to be more of a cheerleader.” She also says the company paid her less than male colleagues for similar work.
Amanda Northrop/Vox

This kind of bias, Muenchow alleges, has led to negative feedback from her supervisors, and her achievements are not recognized as often as those of her male colleagues. She hasn’t gotten a promotion in years, according to her lawsuit, and yet she’s watched men with similar qualifications advance far beyond her.

“It has affected my morale,” Muenchow says. “Being undervalued and passed over for promotion when peers get appreciated and advanced is hard and depressing.”

She says that forming a women’s group in her division opened her eyes. The women talked about all the ways they believe they’ve been treated differently from the men on their teams.

One coworker said she’d pushed for a promotion after returning from maternity leave, but her manager told her he didn’t want to “waste” a promotion on her, in case she became pregnant again, according to court filings. Another employee said she’d asked about a promotion but “was told repeatedly that it was not possible” because it was rare for anyone to reach the next level. She alleges that she stayed in the same job for six years while several men were bumped up.

Talking about compensation with coworkers is one of the few ways to discover patterns of potential gender discrimination, says Emily Martin, vice president for education and workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center.

Survey after survey shows that millennials are much more open about their salaries than older generations. For example, an October survey by Business Insider and Morning Consult found that millennials are six times more likely to talk about money with their coworkers than baby boomers are.

“It seems that we as a culture are moving toward greater transparency around pay,” Martin told me. “Young people are more likely to understand and identify pay secrecy as a destructive force that makes it harder to ensure equal pay and fair pay.”

Some of these lawsuits came before the Me Too movement, but the movement itself was born out of decades of women’s frustrations around not being heard or taken seriously at work. Me Too has only helped further conversations about equal pay.

According to documents made public as part of the court case, female Microsoft employees filed 118 internal complaints about gender bias between 2010 and 2016. The company only considered one of them to have any merit.

In 2016, Muenchow joined two of her colleagues in suing Microsoft for gender discrimination under the federal Civil Rights Act.

A spokesperson for Microsoft told Vox there’s no bias in the company’s pay or promotion practices. “The District Court Judge carefully considered the plaintiffs’ arguments on class certification and rejected them. We remain committed to increasing diversity and making sure that Microsoft is a workplace where everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed,” the company said in a statement.

Another company representative also noted that not all women at Microsoft feel overlooked. More than a dozen women gave court statements in the company’s defense, saying they’ve never witnessed or experienced such discrimination. Nine other women, however, have come forward to back up the plaintiffs’ claims.

In June 2018, the judge overseeing the case nonetheless denied the plaintiffs’ request for class action status, saying they did not show enough evidence that the problems were widespread. Muenchow and the other women named in the suit are appealing the decision.

Punished for complaining

Several of the women suing Microsoft, Twitter, Goldman Sachs, and Nike claim that they were punished for reporting the alleged gender bias. Retaliating against an employee for reporting discrimination is illegal under federal law.

Tina Huang, one of Twitter’s first hires, was one of the women who complained, according to a lawsuit filed in San Francisco Superior Court in March 2015. She was brought on in 2009 as a software engineer to work on the mobile product, and by 2011 she was promoted to staff engineer. Then she tried to get a position as a senior staff engineer, a role that would have moved Tina from coding to leadership, giving her access to important meetings where top engineers plan the technical direction of the company.

Her manager made the case for her promotion in winter 2013. And it wasn’t a hard case to make — she had glowing performance reviews.

“She has been outstanding — truly better than anyone else on the team,” a manager wrote in one of her performance evaluations.

“Her efforts have made a huge difference for growth at Twitter,” read another comment.

Despite all the praise, Huang was denied the promotion without any explanation. She later learned that seven people were moved into the leadership positions, and all were men.

Huang emailed Twitter’s then-CEO, Dick Costolo, accusing the company of having an arbitrary promotion process that disadvantages women. The company initiated an investigation immediately and asked her to take paid personal leave during the probe, which was supposed to take about a week. Nearly two weeks later, the investigation was still ongoing and she still hadn’t returned from leave.

In a court filing, Huang details how the leave of absence had a detrimental effect on her career.
Tina Huang, a former Twitter engineer, said in court filings that she was placed on “personal leave” after complaining about how promotions were doled out.
Amanda Northrop/Vox

Huang said she was removed from her projects because of the extended leave.

Twitter never communicated the result of its investigation to Huang, according to the complaint, and didn’t provide any meaningful options for moving forward. “Ms. Huang was in limbo: she had a job in name only,” the court filing states.

Court documents show Tina Huang arguing that her career was “irreparably derailed.”
Huang, who is fighting to have her suit get class action status, also is arguing she felt she had no choice but to leave. Twitter called her appeal “meritless.”
Amanda Northrop/Vox

Huang resigned in 2014. In 2018, the judge overseeing the case denied her request for class action status, which would have allowed Huang to sue on behalf of another 135 female engineers at the company. She is currently appealing the decision.

A spokesperson for Twitter called Huang’s appeal “meritless.” “We are deeply committed to an inclusive and diverse workplace, and to the fair and equitable treatment of all our employees. We will continue to vigorously defend against the Plaintiff’s claims,” the spokesperson wrote in a statement to Vox.

Muenchow’s and Huang’s lawsuits were denied class action status, but they have not lost their cases. Even if an appeals court judge sides with the lower court’s decision, Muenchow and Huang can still sue individually. But they will have to overcome several hurdles to get their case before a jury.

Dismissed in court

The judges’ decisions in the Microsoft and Twitter cases reflect the legal difficulties women face. There are two main ways women can challenge pay discrimination in federal court, and neither path is easy.

One is under the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which makes it illegal to underpay women for doing the same job as a man under the same conditions. Legal experts say it’s hard for plaintiffs to show that two jobs are equal, and companies can easily come up with a reason — other than the woman’s gender — to explain the pay difference. Valid reasons include differences in employee performance, seniority, experience, and education.

The other way to challenge the pay gap is through Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which outlaws job discrimination based on sex, race, religion, and nationality. Underpaying women because of their sex is a form of gender discrimination, and it’s generally easier to prove than discrimination under the Equal Pay Act. The plaintiff doesn’t have to show that she was doing the same job as the men who were paid more. She does, however, have to prove that the reason she was paid less or treated differently was because of her gender or race — a requirement that doesn’t exist under the Equal Pay Act.

When women take their cases to court under either law, the chances of getting their claims before a jury are low. That’s because federal judges dismiss job discrimination and equal pay claims at a much higher rate than other civil lawsuits. Only about four out of 100 job discrimination lawsuits that aren’t settled or voluntarily dismissed provide any kind of relief for workers, according to Katie Eyer, a law professor at Rutgers.

This is highly unusual in the world of federal litigation, “exceeding the negative outcomes faced by other litigants in both scope and degree,” she wrote in a 2011 Minnesota Law Review article. In other words, the odds are stacked against victims of discrimination more than victims of medical malpractice or consumer fraud.

Deborah Eisenberg, an employment law professor at the University of Maryland, says federal judges have an overly strict view of what “equal work” means under the Equal Pay Act. Her research shows that judges throw out about one-third of equal pay cases through summary judgment. Sometimes, judges improperly dismiss lawsuits even when the main facts in the case are disputed, she says.

“Dismissing equal pay claims at the summary judgment stage is the modus operandi for most federal courts,” she wrote in a 2013 research paper published in New York Law School Law Review.

That’s why some states have passed laws that make it easier for women to prove discrimination. In 2016, California, Massachusetts, and New York passed state laws that don’t require women to prove that they were doing the same job as a man who earned more, as the federal Equal Pay Act does. They just need to show that they were doing similar work — a far lower bar to overcome.

Ex-Googler Ellis is suing the company under one such statute. Her lawyer, Kelly Dermody, is also representing Gamba and Muenchow in their cases against Goldman Sachs and Microsoft in federal court.

Dermody, who is based in San Francisco, has been representing women in gender discrimination cases for 25 years. Her first client in 1994 worked as a cashier at Home Depot. She had a college degree in plant sciences and experience working as a garden manager, but a younger man with no relevant experience was promoted to manage the store’s garden department instead.

The complaint turned into a class action lawsuit that Home Depot settled for $87.5 million in 1998. The company reformed its pay and promotion practices, which has put more women in management positions, Dermody says.

A few years later, the largest equal pay lawsuit in the US was filed in 2001 by cashiers and retail associates at Walmart. The class action case, Dukes v. Walmart, represented 1.5 million employees and made it all the way to the Supreme Court. In 2011, the justices ruled 5-4 in favor of Walmart, saying that the group of women was too large and that they needed to file smaller lawsuits. Current and former Walmart employees are still fighting the company in multiple equal pay lawsuits around the country.

Huang, Gamba, Ellis, Muenchow, and many of the plaintiffs in the latest spate of equal pay cases are not minimum-wage earners at big-box stores. They do not represent the average working woman. They are highly paid professionals in the most lucrative, male-dominated industries. Women are still far more likely to work low-paid jobs, especially if they are women of color.

But until recently, women hadn’t reached the C-suite in large numbers. It remains to be seen just how successful the most powerful women in the corporate world will be in tackling wage discrimination.

Going to court has risks and rewards

It was hard for Allison Gamba to give up her Wall Street career.

She said she knew she wanted to be a stock trader since high school. Her father was a trader, and she found the buzz of the New York Stock Exchange thrilling. She expected that it would be hard to break into the Wall Street boy’s club, but she wasn’t prepared to hit the glass ceiling.

“I knew the deck was stacked against me, but I also felt like I was talented enough to rise to the top,” she told me. “I thought that with my talent and my ambition and work ethic I would get what I deserved.”

She was wrong, she said.

Gamba said she was aware of the risks of going to court. She called it “career suicide,” and said she knew she would never get another job on Wall Street. She tried.

In 2014, after leaving Goldman Sachs, Gamba went back to school to study interior design and now owns an interior design firm.
Hannah Yoon for Vox

Retaliation against women who report discrimination is not uncommon. More than 34,000 people said they experienced retaliation for reporting discrimination in fiscal year 2018, according to complaints filed with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Lawyers for the EEOC determined that 15 percent of the claims had merit.

Fear of losing a job, or being seen as a difficult employee, often keeps women from taking legal action, experts say.

So Gamba switched careers.

In 2014, she went back to school to study interior design and now owns an interior design firm. Sure, she doesn’t make as much money as she did on Wall Street, but she has no regrets. Allison just hopes that the lawsuit will open the door for other women to make it further than she did.

“I want to make it right for the future,” Allison said. “It’s not about the money, it’s about getting what you deserve and making it a level playing field.”

Alexia Fernández Campbell covered labor issues and workers’ rights for Vox.

Hannah Yoon is a photographer based in Philadelphia.

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