The country’s tiny violins are performing their magnum opus: A group of “men’s rights” activists have sued a La Jolla women’s entrepreneurship organization and a Virginia women’s golfing group for sex discrimination, and in both cases, they’ve managed to get settlements out of court.
Mother Jones reports that members of the National Coalition for Men* have levied California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act, a law passed in 1959, against Chic CEO and Women on Course when the respective organizations held women-only events in San Diego. In the Chic CEO case, NCFM president Harry Crouch and two acolytes were turned away from a women’s networking mixer in 2014; they were similarly barred from a Women on Course golf clinic and networking event in 2013.
Chic CEO founder Stephanie Burns, who the NCFM members also implicated in their suit, told Yahoo! News she was “completely confused” about the allegations, since Chic CEO had enrolled men as subscribers and included men as members of an advisory board. When she found out about the suit, she was in the middle of filming a webcast on “Why Men Are So Important to Female Entrepreneurship.” She couldn’t afford to fight the suit and settled instead, which caused her enough financial strain that she downsized Chic CEO and took a new job. “All Chic CEO is trying to do is provide women with the information they need to get a business started,” Burns told Mother Jones. “Just because we help women, doesn’t mean we hurt men.”
The attorney behind the Chic CEO lawsuit, NCFM secretary Alfred G. Rava, has filed more than 150 sex-discrimination lawsuits on behalf of men in a little over a decade. He’s fought against ladies’ night discounts at bars and theaters and once won a $510,000 settlement in a sex-discrimination suit against the Oakland A’s, which Rava claimed violated Unruh by giving out free hats to women on Mother’s Day.
Ladies’ night discounts, which are usually money-making schemes to get women and the men who want to ogle them in the door, should not be judged on the same plane as woman-run spaces in industries where generations of old-boys’-club hobnobbing has left women out of crucial leadership pipelines. In fields dominated by men, especially those where sexism demonstrably thrives, there may be gender-specific benefits that women can only glean through events tailored to their own needs. Organizations that serve black entrepreneurs or queer women in the tech sector serve similar purposes: They offer forums for discussing discrimination, a haven for people who may feel excluded by the dominant culture of broader professional groups, and career advancement opportunities for demographics at a statistical disadvantage. Men do not need—nor would they get—the benefits women gain from a Chic CEO women’s networking event.
Still, valid concerns about how demographic exclusions affect transgender or gender-nonconforming people have helped torpedo sex-specific events like the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival in recent years. It’s worth questioning why organizations bar men from professional or social events, and enumerating those reasons in a public forum could help organizers and attendees refine their mission.
In the argument the NCFM members made in their complaint against Chic CEO, they seemed to take issue with the principle of the thing over any actual harm done: “Imagine the uproar by women business owners and entrepreneurs, feminists, and other equal rights advocates if a business consulting company in partnership with a business networking firm brazenly touted a no-women-allowed business networking event.” But the complaint also argued that “struggling single dads” and male “disabled combat veterans” deserve to have the same networking opportunities as women do. Single dads and disabled men face their own unique workplace issues, and probably deserve to have their own professional support networks—they may face challenges and discrimination, but it won’t be because they’re men. With new data suggesting that white men feel threatened by corporate diversity policies, it seems the ever-so-slow advancement of women and people of color into corporate leadership positions is still too fast for men who believe career success is a zero-sum game. Unfortunately for California women, they can’t even get together to hash out a game plan.
*Correction, Jan. 21, 2016: This post originally misstated that the National Coalition for Men filed the lawsuits against Chic CEO and Women on Course. Members of the NCFM, not the organization itself, filed the suits.