As you may know, bazillionaire New York mayor, possible presidential hopeful and honorary lesbian Michael Bloomberg has been struggling to stay clear of a brewing scandal: The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is suing his company, Bloomberg L.P., for sex discrimination. Several former high-level employees of the company have filed federal discrimination complaints, claiming to have been harassed, demoted or to have had their pay cut when they became pregnant.
Court papers attest that "systemic, top-down discrimination against female employees is fostered, condoned and perpetuated by the highest levels of management within Bloomberg and by ownership of Bloomberg," including the big guy. The Associated Press reports, "Their complaint seeks at least $48 million in damages for each woman. Separately, the EEOC seeks unspecified damages and a change in policies at Bloomberg L.P., and it said it brought the suit only after it tried unsuccessfully to reach a settlement."
Bloomberg himself isn't named as a defendant in the current suit, and has tried to distance himself from the brouhaha. When he was asked what he knew about the suit the day it was filed, he said, "Nothing whatsoever. You'll have to talk to Bloomberg L.P. I haven't worked there, as you know, in an awful long time." The plaintiffs hit back with a motion claiming that Bloomberg remains involved in company operations and had discussed the suit with the company's current CEO; the following day, Bloomberg acknowledged that he does still talk to management about major decisions -- but not personnel matters -- and was aware that an allegation had been filed against the company.
Of course, this isn't the first such suit; Bloomberg and Bloomberg L.P. battled several maternity discrimination and sexual harassment charges in the mid-'90s -- in one widely publicized case, he allegedly told sales exec Sekiko Garrison to "kill it" when she informed him of her pregnancy, and also allegedly cracked, "Great! Number 16!" in reference to the scourge of pregnancies plaguing the company. He denied making the comments, and the cases were settled out of court. Writing about the controversy for New York magazine in 2001, Michael Wolff read the filings in the harassment cases, and observed,
"The documents create a picture of not just a hostile sexual environment but a truly weird one. This isn't Clintonesque lunging on Bloomberg's part, but rather, what is alleged here is a broader, more juvenile kind of control. Bloomberg's company is a playground, or clubhouse, or frat house, with Bloomberg himself as the strangely removed but obviously volatile bully or grand master or BMOC. That Bloomberg is the boss may be much more the point than the sex -- insults, and the power to get away with insults, are more important than gratification.
Perhaps most of all, these papers depict a sense of a remarkable lack of control on Bloomberg's part, or a presumed absolute freedom to say whatever comes into his mind -- it's a kind of corporate-culture Tourette's syndrome. "If you had to, would you rather do that or that?" Bloomberg questioned Garrison, she says, wanting her to choose between a newly hired older female employee or an overweight male employee. The portrait in the papers is of someone who just can't seem to stifle himself.
There is, too, Bloomberg's alleged tolerance of similar or worse behavior on the part of his male colleagues and the casual and systematic retaliations that resulted when the women in the company didn't play their prescribed role.
So, obviously incredibly gross and not OK, if true. But, just as obviously, we can't know if it's true; we weren't there, and the cases never went to trial. Bloomberg has intimated that the current suit will go to trial, so maybe a reliable picture of the company environment will emerge. Until then, we'll just have to content ourselves with some of the clear-as-mud pronouncements culled from Bloomberg's 10-year-old autobiography by New York Times' City Blog yesterday afternoon. "Michael R. Bloomberg's 1997 autobiography provides insights into the mayor's attitudes toward women," the Times' front page proclaimed, but I'm not sure where the insight is lurking -- he loves his daughters, sure, but other than that the most relevant Bloomberg pronouncement seems to be this one:
Having a business career and raising a family create inherent conflicts. Investment of time is the primary controllable determinant of success in both. The one constant in life, however, is the clock. You can only do so much.
Code for "mothers belong at home," or a middling example of inconclusive management-speak? Search me. We'll all just have to stay tuned.