The trial in a class-action lawsuit alleging that Novartis Pharmaceuticals practiced sex discrimination against female employees has begun in a federal court in New York. The class of plaintiffs includes more than 5,600 saleswomen, who are seeking $200 million in damages. According to the New York Times, the suit alleges discriminatory pay and promotions targeting women, particularly pregnant ones.
It remains to be seen if the plaintiffs will be able to prove their case, but the allegations include some pretty shocking (and dumb) comments by managers, including my favorite, in which a manager reportedly told a saleswoman that he preferred not to hire young women, saying, “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes flex time and a baby carriage.”
As we’ve long known, flexible schedules can play an important-often critical-role in work-family balance. Without the option, many women report they would not return to the workplace (at least for some period of time following their maternity leave) after having a new child. But the fact the option exists on the company books does not necessarily mean it’s an appealing one: in many workplaces they are offered, but not widely utilized because of the stigma associated with them. Other employees take advantage of them, but understand they’re a “career killer.” If the reported comment by a Novartis manager is true, it reveals a far more sinister possibility: the mere existence of flexible schedules may result in women being discriminated against from the outset, based on fear that they might actually use them.
As I’ve posted before, making an employment decision because of mere assumptions about a woman’s caregiving responsibilities and how that might affect her performance, is sex discrimination, plain and simple. It’s been labeled as Family Responsibility Discrimination or Caregiver Discrimination, and if it’s not based on actual performance, it’s illegal. So is failure to hire or promote a woman out of fear she might eventually utilize a firm’s flex-time schedule.
If employers are going to offer flex-time schedules, they can’t discriminate against the women who elect to use them. Even worse is treating women differently based on the mere possibility that they might use them.