Sitting in her attorney's conference room the other day, Lynne Coates had a strained look on her face. A trial lawyer who used to work for Farmers Insurance, Coates was pressed for time because she was due in court.
Also, the story she was about to tell me was painful to recount.
In 1993, Coates was hired by Farmers Insurance, which employs hundreds of attorneys to battle claims. She spent five years there before leaving for another job. In 2010, she returned to Farmers, and spent four happy years in its San Jose office.
Her job satisfaction changed abruptly one day when she discovered by accident that she was earning less money than a male attorney in her office with less experience.
"It was just sort of an off-the-cuff remark that one of my male colleagues made one day when we found out there was going to be a management change in my office," Coates, 49, said. "He said, 'Oh, yeah, I could stay here and continue to make X every year.' At that point, my head started spinning."
She earned $99,000. His pay was $102,000. Not a huge difference, until you take into account that Coates had many years more experience.
"After that," she said, "I got nosy."
She buttonholed colleagues. She learned that one female attorney who had been at the company for four years earned only $68,000.
What really got Coates, though, was how little she earned compared to her trial partner, a man who had been practicing for roughly the same number of years. She figured his salary was between $150,000 and $200,000.
Coates stewed for a while. She tried to brush it off. But she couldn't let it go. She complained to her supervisor. He was sympathetic, said he'd get back to her.
A month later, she said, he informed her that the company had acted appropriately. Her salary would not be adjusted.
Then, she said, her job responsibilities began to change. She was effectively demoted. Instead of handling all aspects of high-stakes cases, as she had for years, she was not allowed to make certain court appearances, depose important witnesses or represent the company in mediations.
"It was embarrassing and humiliating," she told me. "I've sort of seen the old boys' thing since I started with Farmers back in the '90s. And I always thought, 'That will go away.' And it hasn't."
Dispirited, Coates quit in August 2014.
Eight months later, she laid out her story in a federal lawsuit against Farmers, alleging the company paid her less than male colleagues, then illegally retaliated against her when she complained. Her current employer, a law firm that represents doctors in medical malpractice cases, has been supportive.
"There is a favoritism toward men," said San Francisco attorney Lori Andrus, who is representing Coates with San Jose attorney Lori Costanzo. "Men are given more opportunities, bigger cases, and are promoted faster and given more raises. And that story is repeated."
This week, Andrus and Costanzo added three more plaintiffs to the case. One, Angela Storey, no longer works for Farmers. But the other two, Keever Rhodes and Sandra Carter, work for Farmers in Los Angeles.
The attorneys hope they can persuade a judge to certify the lawsuit as a class action. If they succeed, it might grow to include hundreds of women.
There are, of course, two sides to every story. I don't know what Farmers' defense is, or will be, because company spokesman Trent Frager said he couldn't comment on pending litigation. But the company, whose online job postings say it employs more than 500 attorneys, has hired an outside law firm that is famous for aggressively defending corporations. The attorney handling the case for Farmers is, naturally, a woman.
In all likelihood, the lawsuit will not be resolved for years.
But it raises a larger equality issue that plagues the legal profession. Today, though almost half of law school graduates are women, women are woefully underrepresented as equity partners at big firms. They get short shrift when it comes to compensation. Some women report being bullied by male colleagues over who gets credit for bringing in new business. (Another not-so-big surprise: There are few women on law firm compensation committees.)
The imbalance trickles down into the legal trenches, where, say, insurance company lawyers toil away.
"Pay equity is the No. 1 issue right now," said Linda Bray Chanow, executive director of the Center for Women in Law at the University of Texas at Austin. "That's what we're all working on. I don't hear about work/life [balance] anymore. I hear about pay equity."
You are thinking: But women earn less because they take time off to raise children, right? Because they leave work earlier than men to get home to their kids, right?
Of course, sometimes that's true.
But Joan Williams, an influential UC Hastings law professor who has written prolifically about the barriers women face in the workplace — especially in law firms — says bias is also at play. "Even after you control for everything under the sun," she said, "women and people of color still get paid less."
Perhaps that is why none of the experts with whom I spoke was surprised to hear about the lawsuit.
"It's very courageous of the women to come forward," said Oakland attorney Leslie Levy, who represented Raiderettes cheerleaders in their successful wage theft lawsuit against the Raiders last year. "Just like Silicon Valley, it's a community and word gets around fast. You leave your employment, then go after your employer, everyone knows about it, and you can't use them as a reference."
We know from social science that women who try to negotiate higher salaries are often penalized just for asking. So they earn less than male peers and fall out of favor. I doubt one class-action lawsuit will change that. But it's a good place to start.