Novartis (Basel), one of the drug industry’s heavyweights, became the subject of unwelcome publicity last week when it began to defend itself against a class-action lawsuit. More than 5600 female sales representatives and entry-level managers claim that Novartis’s US arm denied them equal pay and discriminated against them during employment evaluations and promotions.
Katherine Kimpel, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, charged that the company was particularly unfair to women who became pregnant. According to the law firm’s press release, a manager allegedly told one Novartis employee that she did not qualify for a raise because she had not worked during her maternity leave. According to the same press release, an employee who had given birth to twins claimed that she was required to perform work while she was on maternity leave. She was subsequently disciplined for a low level of sales during the period that included her leave.
These stories are appalling. Unfortunately, they appear to reflect women’s experience throughout the pharmaceutical and other industries. In fiscal year 2009, 10,664 women filed charges of sexual-harassment discrimination with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. This number likely underestimates alleged instances of discrimination; polls suggest that the majority of victims take no action after such events. And Pharmaceutical Technology’s most recent annual employment survey revealed that American men who worked in the pharmaceutical industry earned an average of $110,981, while women’s average salary in the industry was $97,758.
On the bright side, our survey indicated that the gender gap is closing, even if it is still greatest in the US. Laws such as the Equal Pay Act of 1963, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 have helped narrow the wage gap and improve the workplace environment for women. But the suit against Novartis reminds us of how far we still have to go. Passing legislation apparently is not enough to establish equality; we also need enforcement.
In addition, each of us should honestly examine our own attitudes and encourage others to do the same. As I’ve written previously, our companies stand to benefit from gender balance. And equality could help us achieve our potential as individuals.