Wearing a scanty blue gown with rhinestone clasps, Nicolette Hart explains how she can make up to $2,500 a night with investment bankers and their clients in a Manhattan strip club's private rooms.If that's what they're teaching at Penn Law, I suppose I should be grateful not to have made it off their waiting list. Still, whether business activity at a strip club is inherently discriminatory against women in the company does not have as obvious an answer as the article implies.
She writhes and rubs her nearly naked body against as many as seven men, doing "lap dances" for $400 an hour. (The room costs an additional $200 for the hour.) Hart, who once worked for a venture-capital firm, always asks what brought the men together. They often say they're having a meeting.
"I say, 'You're having a business meeting in a strip club?' " Hart says in an interview in the dressing room at Rick's Cabaret here. [...]
Attorney Rohit Sabharwal, a Rick's regular, says he often takes clients of his small law firm with him and such entertaining was common when he was at a large firm, too. "Nobody really objects," Sabharwal says. "I think it's a lot more civilized in the law profession. I don't think women have a problem succeeding in law firms."
Deliberately excluding female co-workers from such jaunts would be overt discrimination, and inasmuch as that was what was happening at Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, UBS et al., their multi-million dollar payouts are unsurprising. For example, Morgan Stanley plaintiff Allison Schieffelin says that she was told that she wasn't invited to a client entertainment in Las Vegas "because the men would be uncomfortable participating in sexually oriented entertainment with a woman colleague present, especially one who knew their wives." This is obviously unacceptable; managers cannot choose to keep some employees from having the same opportunities for client contact as others do.
However, a more subtle form of discrimination would be to invite the women along and hope that most will be too uncomfortable with the idea to accept. Of course, the success of this strategy depends on the target; a woman who said yes and spent the night cheerfully engaging the strippers could end up either becoming "one of the boys," or making the client feel uncomfortable with having a female around in a non-subservient position. As long as women also are invited, the firms have covered their asses, so to speak.
"There are two levels of discrimination: the frat house environment in the office and the deeply embedded practices that are just starting to be uncovered, like the distribution of accounts, business leads and promotions," says Hydie Sumner, a financial consultant who was awarded $2.2 million in 2004 after suing Merrill Lynch for gender discrimination. "When 'business activities' involve the strip club, golf course or hunting ranches ... discrimination is often perpetuated as those in power support and advance those with like minds and tastes."That those in authority often prefer to have like-minded people around is a truism, notwithstanding the trumpeting of diversity. Nor is it peculiar to white males. Companies run by people of color sometimes hire a disproportionate number of people of the same race because this is the management's social network. My friends who work in female-dominated industries such as certain areas of publishing find favoritism playing out among women based on similar lifestyles (single versus married with children) or backgrounds (socioeconomic level of family, place of eduation). But this human instinct is no better merely because it is universal.
The point at which such tribalism becomes discriminatory, however, is difficult to determine. A longstanding point of discussion in feminist literature is whether women should adapt themselves to the existing power structure -- becoming golfers, hunters and strip club enthusiasts, which makes only exclusion discriminatory -- or should attempt to change how the workplace operates, such that those venues no longer are considered appropriate for business interaction. An alteration of the latter sort likely would have benefits for others who must decide between accepting an invitation that could further their careers, and maintaining their own principles. For example, a religious male employee may be expected to join the gang at the strip club, but choose not to do so on the ground that participating in the outing would violate his beliefs.
Certainly strip clubs seem to me a non-essential arena for establishing client relationships. The company at which I worked before law school preferred dinners and sporting events, activities that were unlikely to jar the sensibilities of either workers or clients. As Catharine McKinnon once said when asked if sex harassment law was stifling freedom of expression on the job, "Somebody ought to get worried about the fact that no work is getting done." A company that censors employee speech might be too draconian, but one that refuses to pay for a lapdance surely isn't.
ESSENTIALLY UNRELATED UPDATE: A Minnesota court finds no legal definition for "lap dance."