She wrote Hollywood’s ‘inclusion rider.’ But she fights for women at Walmart, chicken plants and hospitals, too.

Washington civil rights attorney Kalpana Kotagal poses at the law firm where she takes on discrimination cases.
CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Matt McClain

Kalpana Kotagal tried to stay awake for the Academy Awards, but she didn’t make it.

The mother of two had to be up early on Monday morning to volunteer in her child’s kindergarten class. So she was sound asleep by the time her passion, her life’s work, the thing she fights for day after day became the buzz of the nation.

Two words uttered by Frances McDormand as she picked up her best actress Oscar: Inclusion rider.

Kotagal, the 40-year-old Washington lawyer who actually wrote the contract stipulation McDormand made instantly famous, had no idea she made national news.

“I woke up and when I picked up my phone, it had all these messages,” she said.

Interviews with reporters from all over the world filled her day (after the gig in kindergarten, of course).

The term “inclusion rider” shot to the top of Google’s most-searched list. It trended on Twitter. An “Inclusion Rider” T-shirt starring McDormand as Rosie the Riveter was being sold online.

And that’s all totally bizarre for Kotagal. Because the battle for inclusion, equity and diversity has been her mission for years as a civil rights attorney. Except most of the people she fights for don’t wear ballgowns and diamonds, and they definitely don’t have T-shirts made for them. They are banana pickers, chicken pluckers, hourly wage workers, disabled postal carriers, nurses.

“Those are the folks on whose behalf I litigate every day,” Kotagal said. “In those workplaces where things have gone so profoundly wrong, those are the folks on whose behalf we advocate.”

That about sums up the state of affairs in Hollywood, where things have gone profoundly wrong. The Oscars crowd went wild when McDormand said, “I have two words to leave with you tonight, ladies and gentlemen: inclusion rider.”

Funny. Where were they when Kotagal was on a team of lawyers fighting for overtime back pay for chicken processors at poultry plants?

Or when her legal team took on a network of hospitals in Albany, accusing them of conspiring to keep the wages of all their nurses artificially low?

Or when they went after the retail jewelry chain Sterling – a division of Signet Jewelers, which also owns Kay, Zales and Jared. The company, a class-action lawsuit contends, paid more than 44,000 female employees less than men holding the same jobs – charges the company denies. Kotagal is going to trial on that case this spring.

Or as her team prepares to take on Walmart stores in Southern states, where managers allegedly underpaid and underpromoted women for years? The company rejects those claims.

No matter, Kotagal, says. She’s thrilled the issue – even when it’s encrusted in jewels – is in the spotlight. And she hoping it goes beyond Tinsel Town.

“While it is truly important to transform the process of hiring in Hollywood, if we don’t think about what are the workplace conditions to which other women are subject in other workplaces around the country, we’re missing an incredibly important opportunity,” she said.

She knows what it feels like to experience discrimination, to be seen as the “other.” Her parents immigrated to the United States from India and settled in Cincinnati.

“I did grow up a little brown girl in the Midwest,” she said. But she felt welcome and secure in her hometown. Until the moment.

Most social-justice warriors have a moment – an incident that galvanizes their resolve.

Most of Kotagal’s childhood was comfortable and happy. But she’ll never forget one night in the 1980s, when her parents took her and her sister to a local beloved (and now closed) pizza place. They waited and waited for a table. And watched as one white family after another glided past them to the dining room.

“They refused to seat us,” said. “It became very clear what was going on, and I was old enough to, at that time, understand what it was, and that was a really important moment for me.”

Her parents were both medical professionals, and the girls were born and raised in the United States. But, she said, “we still were a South Asian family in Cincinnati, Ohio. And I was always ‘other.’ ”

She worked as an advocate and activist for years in Washington before going to law school and returning to the nation’s capital with the power of the law behind her convictions.

At her firm, Cohen Milstein, she pursues cases designed to right injustice.

As for the inclusion rider, she didn’t go looking for Hollywood. It was her colleague, Anita Hill – yes, that Anita Hill – who introduced her to Stacy L. Smith, the University of Southern California professor who has been challenging Hollywood’s oligarchy through her research.

Smith believes Hollywood’s biggest stars have the power to change the movie industry’s white-majority face by stipulating inclusion in the cast and the behind-the-scenes crew.

Kotagal instantly saw the lawyerly brilliance of the plan.

“One of the things that’s different about Hollywood and why we think the inclusion rider is a valuable tool is that everything is done on a project-by-project basis there,” she explained.

So, it’s not the herculean effort of turning the giant ship of a legacy corporation. Plus, it gives a single person – the star – the ability to demand change for many on the lower rungs.

“And so the folks that we’re talking about including in the rider are not the women or men who are incredibly bankable, who studios clamor to have in their films,” Kotagal said. “This rider covers the crew, and it covers the on-screen roles of the smaller parts, you know, the folks who make their living doing part after part, who also combine that with waiting tables. So, I think that rider is very much pointed at that same demographic” as her other clients.

Kotagal said she didn’t ask McDormand (or any other of the unnamed – “I can’t disclose them” – stars who use the rider) to advertise it on Oscars night.

The attention was a completely unscripted surprise.

And it may mean she’ll never be able to sleep through the Academy Awards again.



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