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Female sculptor files discrimination lawsuit against GM

Tresa Baldas, Detroit Free Press on

Published in News & Features

DETROIT -- Calling the automotive industry "one of the last old boys' clubs," a female clay modeler from Detroit on Wednesday slapped General Motors with a gender discrimination lawsuit, claiming her male counterparts are treated better than her and that there's an "overall sexist environment in sculpting at GM."

The lawsuit comes three years after GM named Mary Barra chief executive officer, making her the first woman -- and still the only woman -- to break the male-dominated industry's glass ceiling and hold the top position in an automotive company.

But that's Barra's story.

Clay sculptor Heather Anger, 38, had a different experience. Her lawsuit claims that her male counterparts make more money than she does -- even though they don't have college degrees and she has two -- receive more promotions and get away with sexual harassment at work. Perhaps most egregious is that GM knows all of this goes on, the lawsuit claims, but has said that it can't do anything about it.

For example, one manager allegedly once advised Anger that if she wanted to learn how to advance at GM , she should read the book "Seducing the Boys Club," the lawsuit states.

"We believe that there's widespread discrimination in this industry," said Anger's attorney, Deborah Gordon, who after four decades of handling gender discrimination cases was surprised to hear of these allegations in the clay modeling world.

"When my client went in and talked to HR about this, she was specifically told, 'Yes, you are being paid less because you're a woman and that's the way it is,'" Gordon said. "I thought, 'Wow.' This is something I was unaware of. ... There are still parts of the world that are still behind the times."

GM officials were not readily available for comment.

As for GM being run by a woman, Gordon said: "Great for that. It has nothing to do with how the women -- especially those not in the C suite -- are treated in the trenches. ... I don't recall (Barra) issuing any initiatives to ensure there is equal pay companywide. She certainly hasn't done anything in clay modeling. So the fact that they have a female (CEO) is irrelevant."

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, comes as the North American International Auto Show kicks into high gear in Detroit, where GM and the world's leading automakers are showcasing their newest vehicles.

The lawsuit, though, is not only about Anger's ordeal, but also takes a stab at the automotive industry's treatment of women, claiming it still prefers men over women and isn't doing enough to change it.

For example, it cites a 2015 gender gap survey by the Deloitte consulting firm, in which respondents reported that the automotive industry was the least successful industry at attracting and retaining female employees. It also notes that men hold 73 percent of the jobs in the automotive industry, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"The automotive manufacturing industry, particularly the clay modeling and design sector, is one of the last old boys' clubs -- an industry and sector that was historically male dominated, and continues to be so," the lawsuit states. "Unsurprisingly ... women in this industry are significantly underpaid."

Anger claims she's one of many.

According to the lawsuit, here's what led Anger to federal court:

Anger was hired as a full-time, creative sculptor. Over the years, she has received numerous honors and awards for her sculpting and artistic work, including serving on a special team to create the GM test track ride at Epcot Theme Park in Disney World.

But over the years, she saw men being treated better, even though most of them did not have college degrees.

Anger was paid less than her male counterparts and was frequently shuttled between different design studios while the men were afforded more consistency. This, the lawsuit claims, helped men advance while she could not. It also took her seven years to be assigned a lead sculpting role, while new male hires with less experience landed these lead jobs.

There's was also sexual harassment to deal with, the lawsuit claims. Co-workers subjected Anger to lewd sexual comments, questioned her ability to sculpt because she is a woman, and told her that she is not welcome in the studio because she is a woman. No one, however, was ever disciplined or reprimanded for any of it, the lawsuit says.

Anger eventually spoke up.

On Oct. 3, 2016, she went to human resources to complain about her lower pay and the sexist environment. HR acknowledged both problems existed, but said it couldn't fix them.

Three days later, she complained to a manager, who allegedly suggested she read the book "Seducing the Boys Club," which talks about how the playing field is not level when it comes to women advancing in business and advises females to "seduce (male managers and co-workers) without sex and manipulate them without malice" to succeed.

Anger filed a lawsuit instead.

First, she filed a sex discrimination and retaliation complaint on Nov. 6 with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Then she filed a lawsuit.

Her lawsuit claims GM violated the Equal Pay Act by paying her less than her male counterparts for the same work, denying her bonuses and promoting her less, despite her stronger qualifications. She also claims she was retaliated against for trying to enforce her equal-pay rights, alleging she was replaced as the lead sculptor in a Buick studio by a man after she raised issues about her salary.

Her lawsuit seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages for -- among other things -- lost earnings, benefits, humiliation and embarrassment that she has suffered due to discriminatory practices at work. It also seeks an injunction to prohibit any further discrimination or retaliation against Anger or any female sculptors at GM because of their gender.

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