Sociological involvement in Walmart Supreme Court case

The Supreme Court is about to hear arguments in a large class-action lawsuit against Walmart regarding female employees receiving lower pay. Interestingly, a sociologist is in the middle of the 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.”

Read the full article to find out more about the academic debate over social framework analysis. It sounds like what is it at stake is whether Bielby can make claims about organizational culture and how it might relate to this case without specific data from Walmart.

You can read the American Sociological Association’s (ASA) amicus brief here. It looks like this is the first such brief filed by the ASA since a 2006 case regarding a challenge to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Digging a bit into the ASA amicus brief, the “summary of argument” provides some insights into what “social framework analysis” is:

“Social framework analysis” is not a sociological method, but rather a legal term for some kinds of research. What constitutes high quality “social framework analysis” continues to be vigorously de-bated among scholars. As such, the Court should assess the underlying social science methods, as practiced by social science researchers and vetted in the peer-reviewed journals of those fields, instead of the “social framework analysis” construct when deciding whether social scientific work is valid.

Systematic social science research has shown that corporate culture may affect individual-level decision-making in common ways. Corporate culture is a set of norms and values that convey messages to em-ployees about appropriate behavior. Corporations may actively try to engineer corporate cultures by implementing policies and practices that convey norms and values. Informal cultures also emerge in the workplace when employees interact, and may either reinforce or resist formal culture as well as promote other non-sanctioned norms. The extent to which corporate cultures, both formal and informal, influence individuals’ behavior depends on the strength of the cultures and also on the degree of discretion that company personnel policies give to individual decision-makers…

Namely, corporations have been shown to reduce gender disparities by instituting formal personnel policies, creating accountability processes for managers, and self-monitoring their employment patterns in order to highlight and address disparities. Extensive research in sociology and other social sciences has shown that these practices equalize gender dis-parities in the workplace by placing central checks on individual discretion that leads to biased decision-making, but do not eliminate all discretion from managerial practice. (pages 3-5)

It will be interesting to see what the Supreme Court decides, even if they are just ruling on whether the large class-action suit can go forward.

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