Even now, few women at the top of corporate America - East Valley Tribune: Business

Even now, few women at the top of corporate America

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Posted: Tuesday, April 5, 2011 1:34 am

In a lawsuit filed last month that seeks $100 million in lost salary and benefits, six current and former female employees of Bayer HealthCare Pharmaceuticals in Wayne, N.J., say they worked in an atmosphere where executives were openly hostile to women -- especially working mothers, pregnant women and those who took maternity leaves.

In December, a female attorney at Reed Smith's Pittsburgh headquarters filed suit against the law firm, charging it attempted to pay her less than male colleagues when she was hired, slashed her compensation after her maternity leave, and routinely gave cases to other female attorneys who were willing to engage in sexual relations with male managers at the firm.

And last week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments about widespread claims that Walmart discriminated against female employees by denying them the same pay and promotions as their male counterparts. The issue before the high court is whether the claims can be certified as a class action suit that would pit more than 1 million women against the nation's largest retailer.

Despite the fact that women comprise more than 50 percent of the country's workforce, they continue to face barriers to equality, according to these lawsuits and others involving gender bias.

Among the reasons for widespread disparity between men and women in pay, promotions and treatment, say lawyers who represent some of the females bringing such suits, is the lack of women in high-ranking positions at businesses who might have influence in closing the gender gap.

"There aren't enough women in management," said Janette Wipper, an attorney in the San Francisco office of Sanford Wittels & Heisler, the firm representing the female plaintiffs in the Bayer HealthCare complaint.

Sanford Wittels also represented women who won a $253 million gender discrimination verdict against Novartis last year; it recently filed gender discrimination suits against insurance giant Cigna Corp. and communications agency Publicis Groupe.

Because few women are overseeing how businesses operate, "There aren't policies in place that are actually enforced that protect working mothers, pregnant employees and any employee with primary care giving responsibilities," Wipper said. "Though working mothers have been in the workforce for some time, we're behind as a country with respect to maternity leave and other work-life policies compared with our counterparts in Europe."

Statistics bear out the argument that women are still a minority in top management at U.S. Fortune 500 firms.

A survey by Catalyst, the New York nonprofit that tracks women in business, said women held only 14.4 percent of executive office positions at Fortune 500 firms and 15.7 percent of board seats at those companies in 2010. Women held 7.6 percent of the top earning jobs at those companies last year, Catalyst said.

"The glass ceiling is very real," said Samuel Cordes, a Pittsburgh attorney who represents JoEllen Lyons Dillon, the lawyer who sued Reed Smith. "Women in higher level positions, especially in legal positions, are rarer. While so many women are in the workplace, not as many are in management. When someone is rare, and not in a management position for a long period of time, (she's) judged by what people think the stereotypical situation should be ... how a woman is supposed to behave."

Cordes cited the 1980s case in which Ann Hopkins, a manager in the Washington, D.C., office of PriceWaterhouse, sued the accounting firm for discrimination when it passed over her for partnership.

When that case eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1989, the high court held that PriceWaterhouse based its decision not to make Hopkins a partner in part on sexual stereotyping. Hopkins' lawyers cited comments by male managers at the firm who suggested she should wear makeup and jewelry, and consider "a course at charm school."

More than two decades after that court ruling, gender stereotyping still exists, Cordes said. "If indeed there are more gender cases, it's a function of that. It's going to take awhile to get to a workforce where people are not stereotyped based on their gender."

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