Novartis faces more gender-bias claims with $110M Alcon suit

Several years ago, Novartis ($NVS) agreed to pay $175 million to settle a high-profile gender discrimination lawsuit focused on its U.S. sales operations. Now, the Swiss drugmaker faces a new discrimination fight at its Texas-based Alcon unit.

Novartis CEO Joe Jimenez

Two former Alcon employees sued Alcon and its parent company for $110 million, alleging that the company pays women less than men, promotes women less than men, and fosters a "boy's club" atmosphere that at best makes women uncomfortable and at worst shuts them out of better opportunities at the company. One of the plaintiffs is asking for class action status, on behalf of other female employees.

For plaintiffs Elyse Dickerson and Susan Orr, the trouble began at Alcon years before Novartis bought the Fort Worth-based eyecare company in 2011. They claim to have been unfairly shunted aside for potential promotions, many of which were never publicly opened for application before a man won the job.

As they did advance through the company ranks, they were consistently paid less than similarly qualified men who held similar positions, the lawsuit claims. And after Novartis took over, the atmosphere didn't change, their allegations suggest.

Novartis says Alcon "disputes these allegations" and will "vigorously defend itself" in court. In addition, the company notes that one of the plaintiffs "was terminated for serious violations of the Novartis Code of Conduct."

"The company does not tolerate activities which are not in compliance with the company's principles for ethical business conduct," Novartis said in a statement, adding that it takes "appropriate action" when necessary, including terminating employment.

Orr, who started out on the R&D side of the business and then jumped to the commercial operation, left the company when she decided the glass ceiling wouldn't shatter for her. Dickerson, a sales and brand manager, complained to higher-ups, the lawsuit claims, but Novartis retaliated by firing her about two weeks before $750,000 worth of her stock grants were scheduled to vest.

Then there are the allegations Orr and Dickerson make to support their "boy's club" claim. For instance, the men played golf and planned outings without inviting their female colleagues, the suit claims, which ended up excluding them when promotion time came around. But then there are the more salacious allegations, including off-color comments, strip club visits, and more.

Novartis is far from the only Big Pharma company to face gender discrimination claims, though its 2010 lawsuit settlement was among the largest ever at the time. Female employees at Bayer, Daiichi Sankyo, and Merck & Co. ($MRK) have slapped their companies with discrimination claims. Many of the suits have been spearheaded by Sanford Heisler Kimpel, the law firm that's handling Dickerson and Orr's claims.

Most recently, a U.S. judge refused to toss out a $250 million gender-bias suit against Merck, filed by 5 former reps alleging that the company's decisions on promotions and pay were closely tied to traditional gender roles.

Sanford Heisler handled the first round of gender claims against Novartis as well, taking the suit through a $250 million jury award and Novartis' eventual $175 million settlement. In announcing that deal, CEO Joe Jimenez said he was confident that Novartis' pharma division didn't have a problem with systemic discrimination, some bad actors displayed "behavior inconsistent with our values."

Now, Novartis says that it's committed to treating employees fairly. "The company is deeply committed to equal employment opportunity for all employees and to preventing discrimination," the company's statement said. "We value our associates and are committed to their fair and equitable treatment in all aspects of employment, including compensation."

- read the discrimination complaint

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