May 27, 2024

Supreme Court to Weigh Sociology Issue in Wal-Mart Discrimination Case

Plaintiffs in the class-action suit, who claim that Wal-Mart owes billions of dollars to as many as 1.5 million women who they say were unfairly treated on pay and promotions, enlisted the support of William T. Bielby, an academic specializing in “social framework analysis.”

A central question in the case is whether he should have been allowed, in preliminary proceedings, to go beyond describing general research about gender stereotypes in the workplace to draw specific conclusions about what he called flaws in Wal-Mart’s personnel policies.

“Bielby made a conclusion that he had no basis to make,” said Laurens Walker, one of two University of Virginia professors who coined the term for the analysis almost 25 years ago. “He hasn’t done the research.”

But a brief supporting the plaintiffs from the American Sociological Association said that Professor Bielby’s work explaining how Wal-Mart’s policies may have led to discrimination “is well within our discipline’s accepted methods.”

The sharp arguments are a testament to the central role that social framework analysis has come to play in scores of major employment discrimination cases. Describing what was at stake in such cases, a 2009 article in The Fordham Law Review defending Professor Bielby said the debate was “about the existence of unconscious or implicit bias, the continued seriousness of discrimination as a force in the modern workplace and the appropriate reach of legal remedies to challenge discrimination.”

The Supreme Court is not considering whether Wal-Mart, the country’s largest retailer and biggest private employer, in fact discriminated against women who worked there. For now, the question before the justices in the case, Wal-Mart Stores v. Dukes, No. 10-277, is only whether hundreds of thousands of female workers have enough in common to join together in a single suit.

To make that case, the plaintiffs submitted 120 sworn statements describing what they said was anecdotal evidence of discrimination. They also offered statistics showing what they said were suspicious gaps in pay and promotion between men and women.

Wal-Mart disputes the plaintiffs’ evidence as unrepresentative and unreliable. But even if all of it were established fact, anecdotes and statistics would not be enough. Supreme Court precedent also requires lawyers pursuing a class action to identify the common policy that they say led to unlawful discrimination.

For that, the lawyers for the plaintiffs in the Wal-Mart case turned to Professor Bielby, who teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago and has testified in scores of similar cases.

Social framework analysis gives courts general information — a framework — drawn from social science. Testimony about the reliability of eyewitness identification can, for instance, serve a valuable role in cases in which prosecutors seek to rely on such evidence.

Professor Bielby, who declined a request for an interview, told the trial court that he had collected general “scientific evidence about gender bias, stereotypes and the structure and dynamics of gender inequality in organizations.” He said he also reviewed extensive litigation materials gathered by the lawyers in the case.

He concluded that two aspects of Wal-Mart’s corporate culture might be to blame for pay and other disparities. One was a centralized personnel policy. The other was allowing subjective decisions by managers in the field. Together, he said, those factors allowed stereotypes to infect personnel choices, making “decisions about compensation and promotion vulnerable to gender bias.”

The methodology he used, Professor Bielby explained, was social framework analysis. He cited the seminal work of the two law professors at the University of Virginia, Professors Walker and John Monahan, in the first of 123 footnotes in his 41-page sworn declaration in the case.

But Professors Walker and Monahan contend in their academic writing that Professor Bielby has misused social framework analysis. It is fine, they say, to give courts general information about social science research. But it is improper, they continue, to draw conclusions about the matter in dispute without conducting first-hand research.

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