The month in sex discrimination

Major gender bias lawsuits in the U.S. and U.K. remind us we've got a long way to go, baby

Published May 19, 2010 9:01PM (EDT)

May is unofficially International Sex Discrimination Month in the courts, thanks to two major -- and drastically different -- cases in the U.S. and Britain. First, the largest gender bias lawsuit ever to go to trial in the United States concluded Wednesday with a New York City jury awarding $250 million to 5,600 women in a case against Novartis. Current and former employees testified over several weeks that the pharmaceutical giant paid women less than men, promoted them less frequently and indulged a hostile workplace.

One witness described a manager who showed off pornographic images and encouraged women to sit on his lap. Another was allegedly raped by a doctor after a work event. She testified that when she brought the matter to human resources, an HR exec told her "how I should have had another set of keys. That my phone was low on battery that night, I should have went to a land line. Asking me how much I had to drink. Telling me how I needed to take accountability for what happened that night." Other women said they were punished for being pregnant, pushed to return from maternity leave early or pushed out of the company altogether.

This isn't an episode of "Mad Men." This is happening, for real, in 2010. And here's the kicker: For the past ten years, the magazine "Working Mother" has honored Novartis as one of the top 100 companies.

Novartis attorney Richard Schnadig asked for mercy, vowing, "The company is taking everything you said to heart and is going to change. Be fair to us." It wasn't enough for the jury, who awarded an additional $3.3 million in compensatory damages on Monday.

The plaintiffs' attorneys praised the women who testified for their bravery and emphasized the significance of the case.  "This will make women feel empowered," said Steven Wittel. "For too long, women have been kept silent and afraid to address the oppressive circumstances they're living with."

Three thousand miles away from New York, a British Employment Tribunal ordered law firm Eversheds to pay a former associate 123,000 pounds (about $182,000) for wrongful termination. But this time, the victim of discrimination is a man. John de Belin sued Eversheds after they laid him off over associate Angela Reinholz, who was on maternity leave, arguing that he was given the boot because the company feared a discrimination suit from her. The firm used a point system to determine which of the two employees would be laid off, examining criteria like financial performance, history of discipline and absences. De Belin scored 27 out of 39 points. Reinholz squeaked by him with 27.5.

One criterion the firm used in its assessment was the employees' abilities to secure payments. De Belin earned .5 out of two points. Since Reinholz was at home on leave during the time she was to be assessed, the company awarded her the maximum possible score. This gave her the edge. In his ruling, the judge said that her score was "unfairly inflated" and that the firm "discriminated against Mr. de Belin on the grounds of his sex." Eversheds is appealing the decision. It's not exactly your garden-variety sex discrimination lawsuit, but it does make one wonder how a law firm (of all workplaces!) didn't see it coming.

We have one giant case of systematic discrimination and a nontraditional case of reverse bias. We have a ton of examples of people exhibiting behavior that is ignorant and idiotic at best, disgusting at worst, and making a bunch of bad decisions. We've come pretty far since the Equal Pay Act and Title VII, but we clearly have a long way to go.

By Jamie Kapalko

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