Call it the class ceiling.
Women suing major technology companies for gender discrimination would have much stronger leverage against their employers if they could press their claims on behalf of a large group of female colleagues. But last year, the first two cases to reach that critical juncture — against Microsoft Corp. and Twitter Inc. — failed to advance as class actions.
Now three women at Oracle Corp. are trying to persuade a state court to let them represent more than 4,000 peers in a case claiming that the database giant pays men better for doing the same jobs, in violation of California’s Equal Pay Act. They were to make their case Friday, but the judge postponed it to September after a brief hearing.
It won’t be easy because the U.S. Supreme Court set a high bar for employment discrimination cases to win class-action status in a 2011 decision that blocked 1.5 million female workers at Walmart Inc. from pursuing their gender-bias claims as a group. The barriers imposed by the high court played into the Twitter and Microsoft rulings, both of which are being appealed.
The case against Oracle was filed by former company engineer Sue Petersen and two other women, all of whom worked at PeopleSoft Corp. before it was acquired by Oracle in 2005.
The women allege that Oracle for years has paid women less than men for “substantially similar work, when viewed as a composite of skill, effort, and responsibility, and performed under similar working conditions.” To bolster their bid for class-action status, the plaintiffs emphasize that company-wide compensation is determined at Oracle’s headquarters in Redwood Shores, California.
Oracle contends the lawsuit wrongly compares women and men tagged with the same job codes even though such coding doesn’t mean the work requires similar skills, effort or responsibility, because Oracle’s products and services vary so widely.
Relying on the codes doesn’t “account for the tools or programming languages an employee must master, the hours her work requires, or the number and complexity of the sub-areas of a product for which she is responsible,” the company said in a court filing.
Dorian Daley, Oracle executive vice president and general counsel, said in an emailed statement that the lawsuit was “meritless,” based on false allegations and relies “on cherry picked statistics rather than reality. We fiercely disagree with the spurious claims and will continue in the process to prove them false. We are in compliance with our regulatory obligations, committed to equality, and proud of our employees.”
Oracle is also fighting a case over gender-pay disparities brought by the U.S. Labor Department in the waning days of the Obama administration.
The case is Jewett v. Oracle America Inc., 17-CIV-02669, California Superior Court, County of San Mateo (Redwood City).
–With assistance from Nico Grant and Robert Burnson.
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