Novartis faces lawsuit from female sales reps

Is Novartis a "hostile work environment" or a company without a glass ceiling? Jurors are charged with deciding that question in a high-profile gender-discrimination trial now under way in Manhattan. A class action on behalf of some 5,600 female sales reps, the suit seeks about $200 million in lost wages and damages.

In opening statements, the plaintiffs' attorney warned jurors that they'd hear accounts of sexual harassment, gender-based slurs, ill treatment of pregnant women, and in one instance, a manager who suggested his pregnant employee get an abortion. "Everyone knew there was a problem," lawyer Katherine Kimpel said in her opening statement. Programs designed to make Novartis female-friendly and help women advance within the company were shams, Kimpel said, just a "PR campaign."

But Novartis attorney Richard Schnadig said that although some women have had bad experiences at the company, sales managers have been disciplined for bad behavior, including one who was fired. Many of the plaintiffs never complained about their treatment while they were working for the company, he said, which gave Novartis no chance to fix their problems. He also said that females have opportunities at Novartis, citing the company's mentoring program for women. "This isn't a company with a glass ceiling," Schnadig said. "We have a lot of women vice presidents."

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