by Ruth O’Brien (ed). Foreword by Liza Featherstone Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008. 264pp. Cloth. $55.00. ISBN: 9780801445309. Paperback. $18.95. ISBN: 9780801473579.

Reviewed by Trish Oberweis, Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice Studies, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Email: toberwe [at]


In TELLING STORIES OUT OF COURT: NARRATIVES ABOUT WOMEN AND WORKPLACE DISCRIMINATION, Ruth O’Brien uses an entirely novel approach – literally. Not only is it novel in the sense of being unique in its approach at communicating discrimination, but also in the use of fiction to reveal the personal layers of a sociological phenomenon. Throughout the book, there is both a palpable tension and a deeply woven interconnection between the personal and structural. I believe the greatest strength of the book lies in this unrelenting connection.

While there are other texts that look at workplace discrimination through a case study approach, a feminist legal analysis, a sociological imagination, and/or a political science perspective, this is the first book I have seen that uses fiction to teach about unfairness. Moreover, the use of stories to communicate injustice is familiar terrain, but I am vastly more accustomed to the stories being more factual than fictitious.

The book is divided into thematic sections on gender roles, discrimination, sexual harassment and the social effects of discrimination. Each section consists of three short stories and a final essay discussing the stories in terms of how each represents the themes emphasized in the section. The short stories are generally very readable and effective at providing a human account of discrimination, on both the personal and structural level, whether intentional or not.

The first section on gender roles presents three different narratives that highlight the impact of women’s traditional roles with in the family and at work. The stories do a very nice job reflecting both the overt as well as the more subtle influences of gender roles. The last chapter of the section lays bare how gender roles are operating in the vignettes in a rather clear discussion intended for an undergraduate, introductory audience. This chapter draws on each of the preceding narratives to demonstrate gender roles in action, both in their more obvious and also in their more background operations, all without claiming that women are strictly victims and the nebulous “patriarchy” is to blame. The chapter concludes by arguing that “women have been socialized to carry the primary responsibility for the family, which leads them to choose low-wage, part-time, and support positions” (p.47). The critique being launched is that, ultimately, “women continue to subsidize the rest of society through their free labor in the family” (p.48). The stories do a nice job bringing this dynamic to life, and the discussion [*666] chapter is clear and effective in helping the reader to understand the structural forces at play.

The second section supplies three narratives that detail discrimination, sometimes as unrelenting and brutal (in Flint) and other times as contradictory and confusing (in Trading Patients). The stories do a fine job incorporating multiple layers of identity – gender, sexual orientation, class, ethnicity – and allow these layers to remain interwoven. The authors make no attempt to separate the protagonists of the stories from the sum of their legal categories. This is helpful, and presents discrimination in a more life-like way than case law is able to do. The legal terms and applications are presented clearly in the fourth chapter of the section, in which the stories are discussed together for what the reader can learn from them about discrimination. They clearly show the ambiguity, the double bind that legal remedies can offer to the victims of discrimination – that legal remedy often comes at tremendous personal or professional cost. The discussion successfully highlights the gap between legal categories and human existence, again for the entry-level reader. The chapter does well to clearly state the difficulty of achieving equality through law: “While it seems uncontroversial that intentional discrimination should be unlawful, proving intent or why someone did something is not easy” (p.92). The following discussion about legal standards for demonstrating discrimination – “pretext” approaches, or a “mixed motives” approach – reveal clearly the inadequacy of law in this arena.

The third section of the book presents three stories of sexual harassment, although not always the kind of harassment that would be legally recognized. In this section, each story emphasizes the role of power and status in sexual situations – whether regarded as harassment or not. The chapter has a particularly disparate set of circumstances to link together – from consensual affairs in which age and status matter tremendously, to unwanted touching and demotion – and it successfully does so by linking discrimination and harassment concretely. Contributing author Risa Lieberwitz writes, “Discovering the connection between harassment and other discriminatory conduct shows that the former is not just ‘sexual desire run amok.’ It’s part of the deeper societal problem of women’s social and economic inequality” (p.152). Further, Lieberwitz maintains a distance from the simplistic, sexual component of harassment and insists “If women received equal pay; if jobs held primarily by women paid comparably to jobs held mostly be men; if all occupations had equal numbers of men and women at all levels of the workplace hierarchy – all this would go a long way toward eliminating sexual harassment” (p.157). The chapter never does away with the sexual decision-making that is involved, but adamantly returns us to the gendered, structural forces that precede those decisions.

The final section of the book draws the reader’s attention to the impact of workplace discrimination. In this section, the short stories reflect the intersectionality of discrimination – the taken for granted bind of working mothers, poor working mothers, and [*667] even an impoverished immigrant working mother, mothering another woman’s children while her own children remain in a distant nation. Each situation reveals how structural gender norms, sometimes charged with racial and class-bound pressures, work to the benefit of some workplace competitors and to the detriment of others. Although the primary lens is gender, the layers of race, class, and national origin are available throughout. The discussion chapter is more legally oriented than some of the earlier discussions and presents case law to illustrate the tensions and assumptions at play. For example, a female paramedic who is clearly capable faces gender bias by patients and supervisors alike. The discussion exposes the gendered nature of those assumptions, but then carries through to discuss the use of physical tests in emergency work, and the potential for gender discrimination. Case law is presented to define the scope of the current legal toleration for physical tests.

While the strength of the book may lie in the stories – the ways that structural issues are made real for individuals in personal, everyday ways – its weakness may lie in the same place. Why use fiction to demonstrate injustice when so many non-hypothetical, non-fictitious examples are available? Such non-hypothetical narratives are equally able to convey the humanity within every story of injustice, the complexity and complacency and ultimate unfairness. Yet, with fiction, the unconvinced, the non-believers have the freedom to dismiss the injustice as simply fiction. For those already conscious of discrimination, fiction is no longer necessary – the depth and fabric of injustice is already recognizable in the real life stories of so many others. For other readers, perhaps this concern presents no problem, but I struggled with need to use fictional narrative. While I believe that narratives are highly potent to convey the complicated nature of injustices, I remain unconvinced that fictional narratives are a good tool for doing so.

The target audience was also unclear. If the book is intended for an undergraduate, uninitiated reader, then the use of fiction retains the largest share of the problem I experienced – why would injustice seem more real to students after reading fiction, rather than accounts of lived experiences? If the book is intended for the experienced reader, then the complexities of injustice are already imagined. Either way, I remain unclear about the value of using fictional accounts. Perhaps, this relates to my social science training, and the lack of humanities in my background. In any case, it was interesting presentation, well written with connections to gender concerns clearly made in each discussion.

© Copyright 2009 by the author, Trish Oberweis.