You wouldn’t ordinarily think that something like workers’ compensation benefit guides could be sexist. After all, an injury is an injury, so it shouldn’t matter the gender of the person being impacted by it. A recent lawsuit in California aims to challenge that idea, arguing that the state’s workers’ comp system is not only sexist, but deeply so, and that it has been consistently discriminating against women by undervaluing the harm they suffer.
The case at issue was filed on behalf of several women in Los Angeles County. The plaintiffs are attempting to receive class action certification and bring a claim representing thousands more women. Two of the women involved in the initial lawsuit are former police officers who both received mastectomies. In one instance, the officer said she developed breast cancer due to exposure to toxins, something a medical evaluator agreed with. Though the injury was deemed work-related, the disability guide used by California said that there is no permanent impairment due to the loss of a woman’s breast.
The officer, Janice Page, argues such a result demonstrates the inherent inequality in the workers’ comp system. She says that to this day she suffers from scarring, pain, numbness and psychological harm due to the mastectomy. Despite these easily demonstrated injuries, the workers’ comp system offered no hope of compensation, something Page believes is evidence of unfair sexism.
Compare mastectomy with prostate removal. Under the California guidelines, a man who has his prostate removed due to a work-related injury would be eligible for an impairment rating of between 16 and 20 percent. Even the Veterans Administration says that mastectomies warrant a disability rating of between 30 and 80 percent, depending on the particular facts of the case.
The plaintiffs in this case argue that the fact that California refuses to compensate women for the loss of a breast is because men overwhelming make up the medical examiners and men were largely responsible for drafting the state’s disability guidelines. This male-centric outlook seeps into every facet of the system and women find themselves routinely undervalued. The hope is that the lawsuit forces the state to make serious changes in the way it assesses and values disability claims, placing women on an equal footing with men. If no changes are made, the plaintiffs claim that the state will have demonstrated that it believes women, and their injuries, are worth less than men.