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Jun 10, 2010

It's Time to Break Your Silence about Workplace Discrimination

  • Women are no strangers to adversity when it comes to a career in science. For as many strides as we as a society have taken toward gender equality, much remains to be done. This is not an issue that is at all limited to scientific fields, but science as an institution does serve as an example of women who continue to strive to make their own mark on what has traditionally been men's turf.

    Beyond some of the obvious hallmarks of the uphill battle facing female scientists, such as the paucity of women in certain scientific disciplines and the male-favored skew of many prestigious scientific awards, there are other aspects of women's careers in science—blatantly discriminatory aspects—that are more hidden from the public eye. The world caught a glimpse of some of the discriminatory practices plaguing one pharmaceutical company last month, with the ruling in the sex-discrimination suit brought against Novartis.

    It was the largest sex-discrimination suit to ever go to verdict in the U.S. In a unanimous verdict finding Novartis culpable on all counts, Novartis was ordered to pay $3.36 million in compensatory damages to 12 former sales representatives as well as an additional $250 million in punitive damages for the company's discriminatory practices that impacted all 5,600 female employees involved in the class. (Undoubtedly, the other 5,588 employees will also subsequently seek compensatory damages.)

    Following four days of deliberation, the federal jury handed down its verdict, asserting that Novartis displayed discrimination against female employees between the years of 2002 and 2007 in regards to female sales representatives' pay, pregnancies, and promotions.

    Obviously, nobody is going to argue that discrimination against women in pharmaceutical companies or in any workplace should be tolerated. (Although, there are certainly some people who will simply deny its existence in the first place. Take the good people at Novartis, for instance, who insist that no wrong-doing occurred and say they plan to appeal the ruling.) Therefore, the point of discussion is not whether discrimination is permissible, but rather, why do these things continue to occur, and how do they manage to stay below the surface of awareness?

    Novartis is a prime example of looking pristine on paper, with its shiny, female-friendly image obfuscating the blemishes of sexism within the corporation. For the past 10 years, Novartis has been declared one of the best 100 places of employment by Working Mother magazine. So how exactly did they pull that off?

    The answer is simple. A company's reputation is only as good as the information that is made available about it. Until women came forward regarding the discrimination in the workplace, all that was known about Novartis in relation to working mother-friendly benefits was that the company offered flextime, paid maternity leave, and telecommuting opportunities.

    So if there is one lesson that every person in every working environment—be it in the sciences or elsewhere—can take from the Novartis sex-discrimination suit, it is this: Be proactive. Discrimination in the workplace, in whatever form it may take, will not be ameliorated unless the targets and witnesses of the discrimination speak up. It may be as simple as filing a complaint, or it may require legal action, but I think that the Novartis ruling sets an extremely promising precedent.

    The federal jury that slapped Novartis with a heavy financial penalty was not only sending a message of discrimination intolerance to Novartis but to every major corporation out there. While we may never know for sure how many insidious business practices go on within various places of employment, we can be certain of the fact that only employees have the ability to bring to light workplace discrimination and lead the charge for its eradication.


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