Winning Landmark Job Bias Suit Leaves a Mixed Legacy : Schools: One woman credits the case for being made a principal, the other blames it for impending demotion from assistant principal.
Irena Szewiola and Pat Joyce were an unlikely pair of heroines. Joyce, a former gym teacher, and Szewiola, a former typing and shorthand teacher, were the sort of 1950s career women who had been taught that to get along you had to go along.
But in 1980, Szewiola and Joyce decided to stop going along. The two women--who for years could not advance beyond assistant principal--filed a landmark lawsuit seeking to force the Los Angeles Unified School District to promote more women. It was an action that gambled their own careers on behalf of 20,000 colleagues. The class-action lawsuit charged the district with discrimination against women seeking to advance from the classroom into the ranks of management.
A decade later, the women look back at the battle from different vantage points. Joyce is a successful principal at Columbus Junior High School in Canoga Park. She credits the suit for her job. But Szewiola (pronounced Chevy-ola), now an assistant principal at Francis Polytechnic High School in Sun Valley, is about to be demoted and believes her role in the suit is responsible for her downfall.
Like the women themselves, the agreement that settled the lawsuit in June, 1980, has met with mixed success. There has been a huge increase in the number of female principals and administrators in the nation’s second largest school district. But men still command the highest posts.
The percentage of elementary school principals who are women went from 35% in the fall of 1980 to about 65% now. The percentage of female principals at junior high schools went from 16% to 42% and at high schools from 8% to 37% during the same 10 years.
In the fall of 1980 there were no women working as principals at the district’s 39 adult schools and occupational centers. Now there are 11. School board member Roberta Weintraub, when she asked at the time why there were none, said she was told by district officials that women could not run the schools, which offer classes at night, because “they had to be home to cook dinner.”
Weintraub, who is credited with pushing a recalcitrant board to settle the lawsuit, said the changes since then, though significant, have yet to meet her ultimate goal: appointment of a female superintendent.
Despite changes in the lower management ranks, district Supt. Leonard Britton and his top three deputies are men, as are most of the third tier of school district bosses, known as associate superintendents.
Critics of the settlement, called a consent decree, say the yearly promotional goals set by the district were not needed, that growing numbers of women would have been promoted to top positions anyway.
But Tom Hunt, one of several lawyers who worked in behalf of the women, said statistics at the time showed clearly that although a majority of classroom teachers were women, most of their bosses were men.
“When we put the facts together we determined that the people doing the promoting were primarily all male,” said Hunt, who had experience with similar discrimination cases. “Not surprisingly, if you are a white male, unless your consciousness has been raised, there is a tendency to pick people who are similar to you.”
Richard K. Mason, one of the attorneys who worked on the case for the school district, said his side had statistics of its own. The district could show that it had not engaged in discrimination because women were being promoted in roughly the same proportion as they applied for the jobs, he said.
“But admittedly in the early 1970s the application rate of women for many jobs was low,” said Mason, who still works for the district.
Richard Grey, who worked with Hunt on the case and now works in the Los Angeles city attorney’s office, said the reason was women were discouraged from applying because they believed the effort was worthless. Many at the district believed that “women were happier as teachers,” therefore very few applied for administrative jobs, he said.
Although both sides believed they would win in trial, they agreed it would be costly and time-consuming.
After several months of negotiations, the two sides agreed on a settlement in which the district promised to promote women at the same rates that they applied for jobs such as assistant principal and higher. The district also agreed to annual goals of having at least 40% of those applicants be women, targets that have been met every year since then.
“The time was ripe,” said Mason, speaking of the district’s settlement agreement, which was eventually approved by a federal judge.
In April, the school board indicated that it would extend the terms of the consent decree after its expiration in June. Board members Jackie Goldberg and Rita Walters asked this month that its provisions be extended to women working for the district in jobs other than teaching.
Walters--the only other current board member who was also on the board at the time the consent decree was signed--said the agreement was significant.
“But for the most part it would have probably happened anyway because of events external to the district,” Walters said. “There was a strong push for women’s rights that, as far as I am concerned, was long overdue.”
Weintraub, who was and remains a political adversary of Walters on the board, came to the same conclusion following a meeting with district women who let loose with years of accumulated complaints. Weintraub found parallels in her own life at the time.
“I was expected to be home and God forbid I didn’t have dinner on the table,” said Weintraub, a conservative who less than a year earlier had been elected to the board based on her opposition to mandatory busing. “The whole issue hit home for me and became overwhelming. No one was going to hold me down any longer.”
Szewiola and Joyce attended the meeting with Weintraub. The following month they sought legal help to prepare their lawsuit.
Joyce had been an assistant principal for 18 years, placing several times near the top of the promotion list. But in every instance, a man got the job.
“I didn’t know why I was being passed over,” said Joyce, 63. “It seemed they used all kinds of excuses.”
Shortly after settlement of the lawsuit, Joyce finally made principal. She credits the agreement for her promotion.
Szewiola’s career is not headed for such a storybook ending. She was transferred eight times before the lawsuit and has been moved five times since the settlement. District officials say privately she is being demoted because she cannot get along with people.
Szewiola, an administrator for 22 years, denies the charge and says the action is in retaliation for her outspoken participation in the lawsuit.
“You can kill somebody with rumor and that is what they’ve done to me,” said Szewiola, 62.
The school district, through its attorney Mason, denies the charge.
Although Szewiola said she has not given up fighting to retain her position, her chances are slim. She said she cannot afford to retire and therefore faces the prospect of teaching a subject that no longer resembles anything like the business courses she taught during the 1950s and 1960s.
“In 22 years shorthand has been replaced by word processing and I am not trained in word processing,” Szewiola said. “But I must go back to the classroom because I have to work.”
Phyllis Cheng, who for several years was director of the district’s sex equity commission, said she believes Szewiola is being punished partly because of her strong personality and tendency to lock horns with superiors, attributes that district officials use to label her a troublemaker.
“Whether they like her or not, she has done something heroic for all women in the district,” said Cheng, who no longer works for the district. “The sad part is that nobody comes up to her and says, ‘I appreciate you putting your name on that suit and making it better for the rest of us.’ ”
Fall Spring 1980 1990 Elementary 35% 65% school Junior high 16% 42% Senior high 8% 37% Adult school none 28%