So far concerns about what having Judge Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court would mean for women have centered on the presumption that he is anti-abortion. (He has never commented on the issue specifically, but he did rule that Hobby Lobby shouldn’t have to cover its employees’ birth control, and he wanted to rehear a decision blocking Utah’s attempt to defund Planned Parenthood.)
Now some of his former students have raised concerns about Gorsuch’s views on discrimination against female workers. Jennifer Sisk, who graduated from the University of Colorado Law School last year, says that during a Legal Ethics and Professionalism class last spring, Gorsuch told his students that companies should ask women about their pregnancy plans during job interviews, and claimed that many women plan to manipulate their employers by taking maternity leave, then quitting to stay home with their children.
Sisk, who once worked for Democratic Senator Mark Udall and the Interior Department during the Obama administration, sent a two-page letter describing the incident to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary. It was posted on Sunday night by the National Employment Lawyers Association and the National Women’s Law Center.
In the letter, Sisk says that, on April 19, the class discussed a reading that described a hypothetical law student trying to find a job at a law firm to pay off her student loans, who also wanted to start a family with her husband. This sparked a discussion of work-life balance and student debt, but Gorsuch stepped in to redirect the conversation:
Instead, he asked the class to raise their hands if they knew of a female who had used a company to get maternity benefits and then left right after having a baby. Judge Gorsuch specifically targeted females and maternity leave. This question was not about parents or men shifting priorities after having children. It was solely focused on women using their companies.
Sisk says that when only a few people raised their hands, Gorsuch said, “C’mon, guys.” He told them that “all our hands should be raised because ‘many’ women use their companies for maternity benefits and then leave the company after the baby is born.” She says he “implied that women intentionally manipulate companies and plan to disadvantage their companies, starting from the first interview.”
When one student said employers can’t ask prospective hires about their pregnancy plans, Gorsuch said that was incorrect. Sisk continues:
Instead Judge Gorsuch told the class that not only could a future employer ask female interviewees about their pregnancy and family plans, companies must ask females about their family and pregnancy plans to protect the company. Judge Gorsuch tied this back to his original comment that companies need to ask these questions in order to protect themselves against female employees.
Throughout this class Judge Gorsuch continued to make it very clear that the question of commitment to work over family was one that only women had to answer for.
Guidelines published by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission do not ban asking questions about family plans, but an applicant’s answers are not supposed to figure into hiring decisions, according to NPR.
Sisk says officials at the school told her they thought Gorsuch’s interpretation was incorrect. She took her concerns to the deans and they told her they would speak to Gorsuch at the end of the term. She does not know if they followed through.
The National Women’s Law Center posted several documents supporting Sisk’s claim, including her post to a Facebook group for female lawyers and part of an email exchange with the dean. There’s also an anonymous statement from another student who took the class. They wrote:
One of the topics he discussed was strongly gendered. Judge Gorsuch told our class that female lawyers get divorced at twice the rate of male lawyers. He also said that many female lawyers became pregnant, and questioned whether they should do so on their law firms’ dime. He asked the female students in my class what they would do if they became pregnant and about the impact of their pregnancies on their law firms. He also asked how they would take care of their children after those children are born.
Both students said it seemed Gorsuch was expressing his personal views rather than playing devil’s advocate to spark classroom discussion, though they were happy with him as a professor overall.
Sisk told NPR that she sent the letter “so that the proper questions could be asked during his confirmation hearings.” In a Facebook post just after President Trump announced that he’d selected Gorsuch from his list of 21 candidates to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia, Sisk said Gorsuch has “a sharp judicial mind” but she still finds his views troubling.
“He does not support FMLA, women as equal citizens, and values corporations above people,” she wrote. “He’s still better than the rest of the choices.”
This post was updated to note that Sisk worked for a Democratic senator and the Obama administration.