Tens of thousands of current and former employees of Sterling Jewelers, the company containing Kay Jewelers and Jared the Galleria of Jewelry, are accusing the company of allowing widespread sexual harassment, assault, and wage discrimination to fester at all levels of management.
The Washington Post reported on Monday that more than a dozen women first filed the private class-action arbitration complaint in 2008. Now, the case includes 69,000 women, hundreds of whom allege that male executives and managers touched female employees without their consent, pressured them into sex, sent scouts into stores to find female salespeople they wanted to have sex with, promised them career advancement in exchange for sex, and fired them if they didn’t comply with sexual advances. Other complainants contend that Sterling pays women less than men and favors less-qualified men over women for management roles.
Sterling Jewelers runs about 1,500 stores in the U.S. Every year, it gathers its thousands of managers for a mandatory multi-day meeting that former employees called a “sex fest.” Company leaders would allegedly roam the resort “like dogs that were let out of their cage,” giving younger female employees booze and preying on their desire to keep their jobs. “If you were even remotely attractive or outgoing, which most salespeople are, you were meat, being shopped,” one woman told the Post. Higher-ups allegedly encouraged female employees to have sex with them and other male members of upper management or risk losing a promotion, getting an office transfer rejected, or being fired. Mark Light, the CEO of Signet Jewelers, Sterling Jewelers’ owner, was among those implicated in the allegations, including an account of female employees skinny-dipping in a resort pool while a male executive watched with a drink and cigar.
The accounts of sexual harassment, corroborated by thousands of women and men, are nauseating, but they’re not entirely surprising. When a company that outwardly promotes a laughably retrograde vision of relationships turns out to be just as degrading to women behind the scenes, it makes a certain kind of sense.
Jared and Kay actively build their brands on the idea of a man fulfilling his providerly duty by buying his woman an expensive piece of jewelry so she’ll agree to marry and/or sleep with him. The former’s slogan, “he went to Jared,” elicits images of catty ladies judging a fellow woman’s value by how much money her fiancé spent on her engagement ring. The latter’s, “every kiss begins with Kay,” is a hilariously icky bit of promotional copy that might as well say “she won’t bone you if you don’t buy her diamonds.”
Jared’s commercials are corny and predictable, each one centered on the premise of a man giving a woman costly merchandise in exchange for her love and affection. Some talk about women as literal possessions, like this one, in which a flight attendant tells a man who’s just proposed to “please return your fiancée to her original upright position.” Other ads have men saying creepy things like “I got you something to keep you warm—on the inside” and “I was wondering if you were free—for the rest of your life.” In one, a man gets a woman a Pandora bracelet and says “I wrote you a love note—without writing a single word,” which is a great selling point for men who have a lot of money but no capacity to express emotion through language.
Jared doesn’t even pretend to sell diamonds to the women who actually end up wearing them; instead, the company talks about women as third parties to the conversation. One ad claims that, at Jared, “we only sell one piece of jewelry: the engagement ring of her dreams.” When Jared once tried to make a commercial targeting women who buy their own jewels, the company ended the ad with the woman meeting her man for a date. The closing text was “she went to Jared,” with the “s” scrawled in front of “he” in lipstick.
Besides their emphasis on getting women to trade marital commitment for jewelry, Kay Jewelers’ commercials are slightly less troubling—save for this glaring exception, an ad that could double as a trailer for a horror film. “I’m right here—and I always will be,” a dude threatens. “Now you can surround her with the strength of your love,” Kay promises would-be stalkers in the audience.
To be fair, jewelry companies have long relied on old-fashioned heterosexual scripts to move their wares. But that can change. Earlier this month, Racked ran a great piece on how Tiffany & Co., among other brands, is trying to capture more of the “self-purchasing woman” market. Women used to be embarrassed about buying their own jewelry—baubles were supposed to be a man’s gift to a woman, not something she could or should buy for herself. Nowadays, women are working more, having children later in life, and waiting longer to get married or not getting married at all. They are more likely than ever to have the money to purchase their own precious stones.
Cheesy commercials are no crime, of course, but it’s not hard to connect the dots between the antiquated benevolent sexism of the engagement-ring industry and the worldview that authorizes men to pay women less money and exploit their power in the workplace, even by pressuring female employees into sex. “Every kiss begins with Kay,” with it’s quid pro quo implications, looks tarnished in that light.