The pay-and-promotions lawsuit against Sterling Jewelers Inc. began the way a lot of these things begin: In 2005, Dawn Souto-Coons walked out of the jewelry store where she had been a successful assistant manager and into a local Tampa-area employment office, claiming sex discrimination in her store. She had been working at a Jared the Galleria of Jewelry for nearly four years. But it was only in the last few months that she began to understand that the thing that kept happening to her there, the thing that seemed to keep happening to so many of the women there, went beyond the regular, standard-issue sexism she had been hearing about her whole life. But what woman is certain that the problem isn’t her, but them?
She had been with Sterling for nearly 14 years by then. Previously, she was a manager at another Sterling store, a J.B. Robinson, when her husband relocated to Florida for work. She asked the company for a transfer, too, and was offered an assistant-manager position at a Jared that hadn’t yet opened. Jared was a relatively new concept, Sterling’s first stand-alone, nonmall store with high-end everything, a drink when you walked through the door, a sandwich, too, Rolexes that you couldn’t find in any of the mall jewelry shops. Dawn loved jewelry. She loved being a character in her customers’ stories about a happy day of their lives. She was excited about the even higher-end jewelry that Jared would sell. The idea of working with the really good stuff made the demotion palatable. She told me she took the job on the condition that she would be in the running for the first manager post that opened up.
But she wasn’t. Not when the manager left for training to be a district manager; not when that man was replaced by a man who had just two years of experience at another jewelry store along with a few years of nonjewelry experience at a Men’s Wearhouse. She reminded her district manager that over the course of her tenure, she had helped take the J.B. Robinson from around $800,000 in sales to more than $3 million, but she wasn’t even given an interview. Instead, she was made acting manager while her district manager looked for someone new. The manager he hired made dirty jokes about the bodies of female customers who walked in and shopped. But at the same time, her district manager brought in a manager in waiting, a man who would train under Dawn at a manager’s salary so that he could be fast-tracked to management. The manager in waiting told a female sales associate that he wanted to “lick her head to toe,” Dawn told me. He also would sometimes ask a saleswoman if she would meet him and a few others at the Bennigan’s nearby, but when the woman got there, she’d find that she was the only one he’d asked. He was soon promoted to another store, and yet another man was made store manager. It wasn’t that Dawn felt entitled to the manager position. She simply wanted to be allowed to interview for it. She never was.
She found out about the pay issue by accident. She had helped recruit Marie Wolf, a woman who had sold a million dollars’ worth of jewelry in one year at the Service Merchandise down the road. According to Dawn, her manager didn’t seem to like Marie, despite the fact that Dawn said she was the top salesperson not just at Service Merchandise but now at Jared as well. She didn’t have “the Jared look,” the manager told Dawn. Marie was tall and wore pants and blouses, not short skirt-suits, and she wore little makeup. One day Marie asked for a raise, and the manager told her she was already making more than any other salesperson in the store.
Dawn knew better. While she was acting manager, she had access to payroll forms and had seen some discrepancies: in particular, that a male sales associate who was recently recruited from a tile store was making $2 an hour more than Marie. The egregiousness of the manager’s lie bothered Dawn. That night, after the manager went home, she closed the door to the administrative office and took out all the payroll records and spread them out over the desks. One by one she saw it: There were seven women and five men who were counted as full-time sales associates. In only one case was a woman making more than a man, and it was only when you compared the highest-paid woman with the lowest-paid man. The women’s hourly wages averaged $10.39, and the men’s averaged $13.40 — so that on average, a woman working a 30-hour workweek for 52 weeks each year would make $16,208.40 before bonuses, while a man working the same amount would make $20,904. The men did not have more experience, nor were they quantifiably better salespeople.
There is a precise algorithm that lives in the heart of every woman, one that alerts her when the injustice she is experiencing outweighs the joy. Dawn saw those payroll records and knew she couldn’t stand for it anymore.
Dawn told Marie what she had seen in the payroll records. That’s when they went together to the office of an employment lawyer for help. That was nearly 14 years ago. Dawn has now been waiting for the resolution of the lawsuit for as long as she worked at the company. Fourteen years was a long time to abide deep and overt discrimination at your job. It’s also a long time to be a named claimant in a lawsuit, which at one point grew to include nearly 70,000 women. It is a long time for that lawsuit to have made just about no progress toward a resolution. And it is a long time to wonder just how an enormous, publicly traded company was able to keep the details of its working conditions from its shareholders and from the public, and why those secrets might have been the company’s most valuable assets after all.
If Sterling Jewelers Inc. isn’t a familiar name to you, it’s probably not because the company isn’t a part of your life. Sterling and its parent company, Signet, own the jewelry stores that dominate the malls and strip malls, with brands like Kay, Jared the Galleria of Jewelry, Osterman, J.B. Robinson, Zales and a dozen others. Often a set of two or three jewelry stores that appear to be competing in a mall are all owned by Signet, its own hall of mirrors.
The company spent the ’90s and early 2000s buying up local branches of family-owned jewelry stores and incorporating them into Sterling. By the time Signet acquired Zales in 2014, it owned more than 3,600 stores — 7 percent of the specialty jewelry market in the United States, selling nearly $6 billion in jewelry a year. It is the largest jewelry retailer in the United States.
Sterling took jewelry off its velvet avenues and made it available to people where they were, so that it would be easy to follow the company’s Pied Piper jingles to acquisition: “Every Kiss Begins With Kay”; “He Went to Jared.” The company’s commercials were just as ubiquitous as its stores: A woman in a thunderstorm scared by the lightning leaps into her fellow’s arms, happy to find both safety from bad weather and a silver Love’s Embrace necklace that he bought her, which looks like arms hugging a gem; or the scene of a chaotic family Christmas, in which the man pulls the woman outside into the snow and gives her a necklace from the 3-Stone Collection, which looks like what it sounds like, and she therefore starts kissing him romantically. This is how powerful the company’s marketing is: In the 1980s, a massive amount of brown diamonds, which were historically used in industrial settings, were mined, but they never took off as a commercial product. In 2000, Le Vian, which sells in Sterling stores, marketed them not as brown but as chocolate. Chocolate diamonds are now a thing.
The employment lawyer Dawn and Marie eventually contacted in 2005, Sam J. Smith, knew that Sterling was a large company with stores across the country. He realized that the things they were saying indicated what might be a systemic problem. He called Thomas Warren, with whom he had worked on the historically large class-action discrimination suit against the restaurant chain Shoney’s, who in turn called Joseph Sellers, a partner at a large firm specializing in civil rights that could sustain what might be a bigger lawsuit than Dawn and Marie, in their one store, had ever imagined.
The lawyers told Dawn and Marie to tell their colleagues who had worked at Sterling properties to contact them if they had a similar complaint. But all the employees had signed a mandatory arbitration agreement in the flood of paperwork that accompanied their hiring at Sterling — everyone did at the time. Arbitration meant that instead of being heard in a public court, they had to proceed privately in Sterling’s in-house system, called Resolve. The first step of Resolve was an internal investigation. If the employee wasn’t satisfied by the results of that investigation, he or she could ask to be heard by a panel of the employee’s peers and an employment lawyer, all selected by Sterling. If the employee was still dissatisfied, the case was sent to arbitration. Sterling paid the arbitrator. The hearing’s proceedings were carried out with judicial oversight, but they were done in private, and their outcome was sealed. Afterward, if there was a settlement, the employee often had to sign a nondisclosure agreement that prohibited the employee from speaking about the case again. The benefit of arbitration to the employee was that the claim was usually resolved more speedily. The benefit to the company was that it was resolved in secret. The secrecy was the point.
One by one, Dawn and Marie’s colleagues called the confidential toll-free number the law firms had set up. Hundreds of women called. The lawyers heard consistent stories from across brands and stores and regions about pay disparity, but the employees didn’t know what others had been through — in arbitration, the proceedings are so secretive that the lawyers weren’t allowed to tell other women in the suit what had happened to them. The women and men I interviewed told me that they were instructed upon their hiring that they were not allowed to discuss their wages with their co-workers — and some, who were managers, told me they were instructed to enforce those restrictions — but that didn’t stop some of the salesmen from bragging.
[Read essays from women across the working world about sexual harassment.]
But then, almost incidentally, the lawyers started to hear about other things. Women contacting them talked about groping and sexual coercion and sexual degradation and rape. Eventually they amassed more than 200 sworn statements from women who, for the most part, didn’t know one another. Some men gave statements, too, haunted by what they had seen at the company and what they had participated in.
There was Diane Acampora, in Lancaster, Pa., who said that after five years at Kay and six years of experience at another store she made $2 to $4 less per hour than her more-recently-hired, less-experienced male colleagues. When she was promoted to manager, she attended the company’s annual managers’ meeting in Florida. On a shuttle bus back to the resort, she was pulled onto the lap of a manager, who held her tightly as he fondled her. At the same meeting, a district manager tried to kiss her. At a later meeting, she had to leave a hot tub because discussion turned uncomfortably sexual. She was later told that the hot-tub scene turned into an orgy.
There was Jacqueline Bailey, who, as a sales associate at a Jared in Virginia, was making $11 an hour and had to listen to a male employee brag about being paid more than the women in the store.
And Susan Ballard, an experienced store manager in Savannah, Ga., who watched a male manager in training be offered the higher-volume store she had specifically asked to interview for, which that manager in training then turned down because he didn’t want to relocate. When she was finally promoted, she went to the annual managers’ meeting, and a district manager asked her to join him in one of the hot tubs in the resort. She refused. She heard that her roommate and another few female store managers went back to an executive’s hotel room together.
There was Amanda Barger, a sales associate who made her way up to assistant manager — who, after five years of employment, complained that she was still making her starting salary but was brushed off by her manager; who watched the new guy who previously worked at a cellphone-cover kiosk be promoted ahead of her; who dared to complain to H.R. after her district manager invited her to a Chili’s with a few other managers and, while they were eating, texted her from across the table, “I want to come on your tits.”
These accounts weren’t curated for maximum salaciousness. It is just a selection of the A’s and B’s.
The sworn statements, when read from beginning to end, are shocking, first for the consistency of horrors across cities and regions. Then for the egregiousness and audacity of the abuse they detail. But as you make your way through the declarations — to that of a woman in Missouri who, upon finding her store manager with his penis exposed, was asked if she wanted to join in, or another woman, whose manager felt her up while her boyfriend, also a Sterling employee, was facing another direction — they become shocking simply for their volume. When you finally get to the end — Tammy Zenner, who was called Texas Tammy by her colleagues because of the size of her breasts and who complained to her store manager that an executive visiting the store had rubbed himself against her from behind but was told when she complained that she should be flattered — another wave of shock hits you. Hot-tub orgies? At the company that has so profoundly contributed to our notions of gauzy romance and surprise Valentine’s gifts and new and abundant ways to show a woman how she is treasured?