Motherhood at center of Merck gender bias suit

Yesterday, Merck ($MRK) became the most recent pharmaceutical company to be hit with a gender discrimination suit--an occurrence that's become pretty common in the pharma world. But it wasn't just that senior sales rep Kelli Smith felt overlooked in a man's world. What compelled her to bring the suit, she claims, was the company's blunt admittance that sales reps having babies was bad for business.

Deborah Marcuse, one of the lawyers working on Smith's case, said in an interview with FiercePharma that Merck management was "extraordinarily candid" in conveying to Smith that it was in fact "the timing of her baby that led to her demotion." Marcuse is a senior litigation counsel with Sanford Heisler LLP, which filed the $100 million litigation on behalf of all female sales representatives at the pharma giant.

Merck said today the case "lacks merit" and that it vehemently denies the allegations. "Merck is fully committed to providing equal employment opportunities for all employees and has a strong anti-discrimination policy that prohibits discrimination on the basis of characteristics, such as gender, race, age, disability and sexual orientation," the company said in an email statement.

Gender discrimination cases are certainly nothing new for pharma--or for Sanford Heisler. Smith's case is Sanford's 7th publicly filed class action of gender discrimination against a pharmaceuticals company, Kate Mueting, an associate on the Sanford Heisler team, told FiercePharma. Those suits include a 2010 case against Novartis ($NVS), in which the firm won a jury verdict of $253 million, which then settled for $175 million. Mueting and Marcuse said they're "not really sure" why companies aren't changing their practices. "You would think the Novartis case would have sent a pretty clear message to the industry that those kinds of practices are illegal and won't be tolerated," Marcuse said.

Smith's claim asserts that Merck discriminates against women on multiple fronts, including discouraging management from hiring and promoting women, decreasing the pay of managers whose subordinates take maternity leave and attempting to force pregnant women to leave the company. 

Merck, for its part, has garnered accolades in recent years as one of the top employers for executive women, and it has been ranked by Working Mother as one of the top 100 companies for working mothers for the past 7 years straight. The gender discrimination allegations against Merck come even as the company has launched its "Let's Go There" marketing push. The women's health campaign "reminds modern women that whatever stage of life they're in, they don't need to settle for what's not working."

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