One of America's Most Sexist Companies was on Working Mother magazine's Best 100 List.

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
May 24 2010 3:34 PM

How Could One of America's Most Sexist Companies End Up on Working Mother's Best 100 List?

And what does that say about American employers' glowing reports about their own "family-friendliness"?

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Because the 12 women represent a class of female Novartis employees, now 5,588 other female employees of the maker of Ex-Lax, Bufferin, and NoDoz can apply for damages. With up to 2.6 percent of the Swiss company's 2009 revenue at stake, the decision is a serious warning to employers of the potential costs of operating like an old-boys' club.

Novartis isn't alone in having serious dissonance between its official policies and the experiences of its female workers. Thirty-six companies that have been on Working Mother's 100 Best Companies list have faced "family responsibilities discrimination" suits filed by employees who are pregnant or care for young children, sick family members, or aging parents, according to Calvert. Plaintiffs prevailed in 15 of those cases, including in suits against Deloitte & Touche and Ernst & Young, two accounting firms often heralded for their efforts to retain women by instituting family-friendly policies.

In many ways, Novartis fits right in with patterns observed in this emerging legal area. With more than 2100 family responsibilities discrimination cases having taken place so far, lawyers in the field have begun to make classifications among them, coining terms like "maternal wall discrimination" to describe cases involving working mothers, "new supervisor syndrome," in which a working parent doesn't run into trouble until a new boss comes along, or "second child bias." (Ditto, except it's a second baby that comes along.) Even the abortion comment can be seen as part of a trend, since at least seven of these suits have involved employers encouraging female workers to abort.

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This behavior isn't new, of course. But the fact that that mothers and other caregivers are increasingly filing—and winning—suits against employers is new. Such cases having increased almost 400 percent over the past decade. Among more than 2,100 suits tracked by the Center for WorkLife Law, the employee either won or reached a favorable settlement in more than half (a rate that's higher than in other kinds of employment cases).

That's good news, and this latest victory will stand as a warning to companies. Still, the decision is only part of what will probably be a long process of combating discrimination in the workplace. For now, Novartis is planning to appeal the ruling, while Working Mother is considering whether to bar the pharmaceutical company from its list. Working Mother's Evans says her company is not planning on changing the methodology it uses to compile its list, though, because it's succeeded in getting companies to compete with one another to be family-friendlier.

Perhaps so. But if this is what it's like to work for one of our country's 100 best companies for working mothers, one shudders to imagine what it'd be like to work for one of the worst.

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Sharon Lerner is a senior fellow at Demos and the author of The War on Moms: On Life in a Family-Unfriendly Nation. Follow her on Twitter or email her at fastlerner@gmail.com.