Men Claim Discrimination in Legal Attacks on Women's Groups

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(Bloomberg) -- Alfred Rava, a San Diego lawyer, counts himself as a fierce warrior in the fight against gender discrimination, but not in the way most people think. His targets have been women’s organizations and women-only events which, he says, are illegally biased against men.

Over the last dozen years, Rava, 62, has gone after the Oakland A’s for giving away swag to women in honor of Mother’s Day, forced a San Diego fire agency to cancel a “girl’s empowerment camp” and won a landmark ruling from the California Supreme Court challenging a supper club’s higher admission fees for male patrons. He says he’s “batting a thousand.”

Recently Rava has taken aim at the small but growing cadre of businesses and groups designed to empower women in their careers. Co-working spaces, like the Wing, and professional development networks like Ladies Get Paid have gotten more popular in the last few years in part, they say, because women are seeking refuge from the discrimination they face in male-dominated professional spheres. But Rava says their female-focused remedy is unfair to men.

It’s counter-intuitive to argue that men face discrimination. Women were almost twice as likely as men to say they experienced gender discrimination at work, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey. And corporate America remains male-dominated: Men still run 95 percent of S&P 500 companies and hold most corporate board seats.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. “There are little wrinkles in gender inequality where it does appear that men are discriminated against,” said Michael Kimmel, a sociologist and founder of the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities at Stony Brook University in New York.

One organization that got caught in this wrinkle is Ladies Get Paid, a startup founded in 2016 to teach women how to negotiate pay and become more confident in the workplace. The group held events in San Diego and Santa Monica, and when two men were turned away at the door, they went to Rava and filed suit.

Claire Wasserman, founder of Ladies Get Paid, said that no one at the organization remembered the plaintiffs or turning away any men at its California events. As Exhibit A, Rava pointed to the group’s advertisement: “Can men attend? Sorry, not at this event. We do welcome cis women, trans women, and non-binary/gender conforming folks.”

Wasserman said she had an “out-of-body experience” when she learned she was being sued. “I thought I could just help women get into leadership positions. I thought I could just help women get more money,” she said. “Now I see how this is threatened.”

Like others in the sorority of female entrepreneurs challenged by Rava, Wasserman reached a settlement for undisclosed terms. Now, she says, the organization is on the verge of bankruptcy. To help keep the organization afloat, she launched a crowdfunding campaign called Ladies Get Sued. As of May 10, she’d raised more than $50,000, halfway to her fundraising goal.

Rava is unapologetic. In an email, he describes himself as “an advocate for diversity and equal treatment.” What’s more, he said, “every one of the defendant businesses stopped their sex discrimination against millions of California consumers after I filed my lawsuits.”

Some of them stopped operating altogether. Women on Course started in 2005 as a golf clinic and network for professional women. It settled with Rava in 2013, according to founder Donna Hoffman. The same year, her company was acquired by Billy Casper Golf, which eventually shut it down.

“I didn’t have a lot of reserves,” said Hoffman, who lives in Virginia. “It was just too expensive to have to answer to them to stay in business.” She later reincorporated under the name Events 19 LLC. She still runs events as Women on Course, with the provision that anyone can attend. After the interruption, she says, her audience shrunk to one-quarter its previous size.

Rava’s efforts draw praise from the San Diego-based National Coalition For Men, which has been around since 1977. (As recently as last week, Rava was listed as the group’s secretary on its website. He says he’s not a member.) “We are in the midst of another civil rights movement,” said Harry Crouch, the president of the organization. “While most people don’t understand it, men are not the ones with all the rights.”

Stony Brook’s Kimmel said that mindset echoes other parts of the current political atmosphere. “Part of the general political context of this is what I call ‘aggrieved entitlement,’” Kimmel said, a stance he described as, “we’re entitled to go anywhere we want, at any time we want, and when people try to restrict that access, we feel like we’re the ones aggrieved.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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