- Six female attorneys have filed a putative class-action lawsuit against international law firm Jones Day, claiming systemic discrimination on the basis of gender, pregnancy and maternity, and are seeking $200 million (Tolton, et al. v. Jones Day, No. 1:19-cv-00945 (D.D.C. April 3, 2019)).
- The complaint alleged that Jones Day operates as a "fraternity in a perversely literal sense," with a male-centric mentorship culture and an atmosphere in which sexual harassment is both flagrant and condoned. Women often are fired when they get pregnant, the complaint said, and often suffer retaliation when they speak out. A single male partner makes all partnership and compensation decisions for associates across the entire 2,500-attorney firm, the complaint alleged, and as a result of this opaque system, women make less money and are "heavily outnumbered in the partnership."
- Jones Day, in a statement, disputed the claims. "The distorted picture of the Firm portrayed in the complaint is not Jones Day," it said. "We will litigate this case in court, not in the media, and are confident we will prevail."
According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), harassment based on a protected characteristic is illegal when enduring the conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or the conduct is sufficiently severe or pervasive that it creates a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile or abusive. (Federal law also outlaws harassment in retaliation for engaging in protected activity.)
A single act is usually not sufficient to establish a cause of action unless it's severe. For example, an isolated instance of denied training or mentorship might not be sufficient to establish a sex bias or retaliation claim, but a systemic pattern of discrimination relating to training or mentorship could be. The U.S. Supreme Court has said, for example, that excluding an employee from a weekly training lunch that contributed to professional advancement could be considered a materially adverse action.
Especially in the era of #MeToo, training is essential to ensure that managers know what is acceptable and what is not. It's also important to hold all levels of the organization accountable; no one should be permitted to engage in harassing or discriminatory behavior simply because he or she is senior or has connections with valuable clients, experts have said.
Similarly, there is a movement toward pay transparency. Employers are increasingly working to communicate how pay is set, and states and municipalities are passing salary history bans in an effort to remediate historical pay disparities. It's also important to remember that, while employers may not like employees comparing notes on pay, this is generally considered protected activity under the National Labor Relations Act, even when employees are not members of a union.