Ex-Workers Accuse Novartis AG's Alcon of Being Sexist, Maintaining a Boy's Club Atmosphere

Ex-Workers Accuse Novartis AG's Alcon of Being Sexist, Maintaining a Boy's Club Atmosphere
March 18, 2015
By Alex Keown, BioSpace.com Breaking News Staff

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Two former employees have filed a $110 million gender discrimination suit against Alcon Laboratories, Inc. , a division of Novartis AG , alleging the company fosters a “boys club” attitude that is hostile to women, Reuters reported Wednesday.

Alcon Laboratories, Inc. manufactures contact lens solution and other eye care products. Swiss-based Novartis acquired Alcon in 2010 for $51.6 billion.

The two plaintiffs, Elyse Dickerson and Susan Orr, say the company specifically violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits gender discrimination by employers, and the U.S. Equal Pay Act.

Dickerson began working for Alcon in 2002, but said she earned less than her male counterparts, according to the lawsuit. While employed she began to advocate for better pay for female employees. She filed a Charge of Discrimination against Novartis and Alcon before the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in August 2014. She was terminated while on federally protected leave in January of this year, according to a press release issued by her attorneys.

Similarly Orr, who has worked for the company since 1997, said she was “paid less than similarly-situated male employees, who received higher base salaries, higher bonuses, and more stock equity grants.” She left the company in 2014.

Under Title VII the law “forbids discrimination when it comes to any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoff, training, fringe benefits, and any other term or condition of employment.”

Dickerson, a former global director for Alcon, said she was fired from her position for complaining about inequalities she saw at work. She is seeking $10 million plus a return to her position, Reuters reported.

Orr is a former research scientist at the company who resigned due to being passed over for promotions. She is seeking $100 million for herself and others as part of a class action lawsuit.

The plaintiffs say women make up less than 15 percent of leadership positions at Alcon. Additionally the lawsuit says male doctors who were viewed as “key opinion makers” were provided prostitutes by the company and many senior male staff repeatedly took younger male colleagues to strip clubs, out for cocktails or to play golf, while women employees were not invited, the Dallas Business Journal reported.

Elizabeth Power, spokesperson for Novartis, told Reuters the company disagrees with the allegations. She said the company is “deeply committed to equal employment opportunity for all employees and to preventing discrimination.”

In 2010 Novartis was ordered to pay more than $250 million in a separate class action that alleged widespread gender discrimination. At the time the judgment was awarded it was the largest discrimination judgment in U.S. history. Following that judgment, Novartis agreed to implement reforms to prevent further discrimination.

In its latest financial report, which was released in January, Novartis said the company continues to focus on the promotion of women. However, plaintiff’s lawyers said that has not been the case at Fort Worth-based Alcon.

“As a result of our 2010 verdict, Novartis has done great things to improve the workplace conditions at Novartis Pharmaceuticals. But as this case demonstrates, there is considerable work to be done to ensure that female employees in the Alcon division receive equal treatment,” attorney David Sanford said.

The same law firm that won the 2010 lawsuit, Sanford Heisler Kimpel, is handling the case brought by Orr and Dickerson.

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