Last week, in a 6-to-3 ruling hailed by civil rights and women's advocates, the U.S. Supreme Court held that Price Waterhouse had based its decision in part on unlawful sexual stereotyping. Wrote Justice William Brennan in the lead opinion: "An employer who objects to aggressiveness in women but whose positions require this trait places women in an intolerable and impermissible Catch-22: out of a job if they behave aggressively and out of a job if they don't."
According to the court's ruling, the legal burden of proof shifts to Price Waterhouse. The firm must establish that it would have rejected Hopkins' partnership bid based on purely nondiscriminatory factors. "At this point," noted Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, "the employer may be required to convince the fact finder that, despite the smoke, there is no fire." The court's decision to shift the burden to the employer should make it easier for many employees to win Title VII cases, which also bar job discrimination on the basis of race, religion and national origin.
Hopkins, who is now a senior budget officer at the World Bank, declared herself "absolutely delighted" by the court's decision. "It's an important and significant win for women," said Marcia Greenberger, managing attorney of the National Women's Law Center in Washington. "This will make a real difference to women who are trying to rise to the top of their professions." A contrary ruling, said some scholars, would have meant an almost insurmountable burden of proof for many plaintiffs in employment cases.
But Price Waterhouse also had reason to celebrate. The court found that the firm had earlier been held to too high a standard of proof in rebutting Hopkins' claims. Thus, when the case is reheard in a lower federal court, Price Waterhouse's task will be somewhat less onerous. Instead of having to present "clear and convincing evidence" that it declined to promote Hopkins for nondiscriminatory reasons, the firm will only be required to back that claim with a "preponderance" of evidence -- a less rigorous standard.
The net result of the court's ruling, say legal experts, is that firms will be under pressure to root out bias among individuals making important personnel decisions. "The court is saying to employers they should examine their processes and make sure they have objective standards," says Douglas McDowell of the Equal Employment Advisory Council. "Supervisors must be properly trained to ensure that race and sex aren't part of the decision- making process." Such changes in attitude may already be under way at Price Waterhouse. Referring to the embarrassing publicity generated by this case, Kathryn Oberly, an attorney for Price Waterhouse, observes, "You couldn't have a better teaching example than to see the name of your firm in the newspaper for the past few years." Still, the firm has a way to go when it comes to women in top jobs. Even after the prolonged litigation, only 28 of Price Waterhouse's 900 current partners are women.
Ms. Hopkins's lawyers presented evidence in the case that the partners at Price Waterhouse had called her overbearing, macho and abrasive and had said she would have a better chance of becoming a partner if she would wear makeup and jewelry, and walk, talk and dress ''more femininely.''
Ms. Hopkins, 46 years old, who now works at the World Bank in Washington, was awarded back pay amounting to about $400,000, in addition to the partnership. The exact amount of the back pay and the interest due her has not yet been computed.
Judge Gesell said Price Waterhouse must make Ms. Hopkins a partner as of July 1 and pay her as much as the average management consultants who were admitted to the partnership in 1983, when she was turned down, now earn.
Ms. Hopkins said she was ''prepared to go back'' to Price Waterhouse but was yet convinced that her seven-year legal fight was finished.
''It's not over until it's over,'' she said. ''The judge hasn't signed the order yet and Price Waterhouse has appealed everything so far, so I'm not going to deal in conjecture. My kids keep asking how many times we have to win this before it's over.'' #27 of 900 Partners Are Women Ms. Hopkins said she had not yet heard from anyone in management at Price Waterhouse. ''And frankly, I would die of shock if I do,'' she added.
A spokeswoman for Price Waterhouse, a 900-partner firm with 27 female partners, said the firm was still studying the decision to determine its response.
Douglas B. Huron, a lawyer who represented Ms. Hopkins, said: ''The most important thing about this case is the remedy that was ordered. The judge looked at it carefully and decided that she was entitled to what she had been denied. That means that under the law, women and minorities can get what's coming to them.''
Ms. Hopkins went to work as a management consultant at Price Waterhouse in 1978 and was nominated for partnership in 1982, the only woman among the 88 candidates for partnership. Although Ms. Hopkins had brought in more business than any of the other candidates, she was also the subject of more negative comments from partners than any of the others. Most of the comments criticized her handling of interpersonal relationships.
'An Irrational Explanation'
In early 1983, Ms. Hopkins was told that the partnership decision had been delayed, and a few months later she was told she was not being renominated. In 1984 she resigned and sued the firm for sex discrimination.
''I never thought being a woman was an obstacle when I was at Price Waterhouse,'' Ms. Hopkins said. ''At the time I left, I just thought I had been given an irrational explanation for a bad business decision. It was only later, when we were in litigation, that I found out about the comments that I needed to go to charm school, that I was too macho, that I was overcompensating for being a woman.''
The question of whether someone passed over for partnership can sue for employment discrimination first went to the Supreme Court in 1984, in a suit brought by Elizabeth Hishon against King & Spalding, an Atlanta law firm. Although the High Court said such claims would be allowed, the case was settled out of court; Ms. Hishon never returned to the firm.
Ms. Hopkins's case went to the Supreme Court last year on the question of what standard had to be met by claimants and employers in such discrimination cases.
The Court ruled, 6 to 3, that claimants had the initial burden of showing some evidence of discrimination but that it then fell to employers to prove their innocence.
Evidential Standards Eased
The Court said employers had only to show ''a preponderance of the evidence,'' not ''clear and convincing evidence,'' that they had legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for denying the promotion.
The case then went back to trial. In his ruling on Monday, Judge Gesell found that Price Waterhouse had not met the lower standard. Judge Gesell found that the firm maintained a partnership evaluation system that ''permitted negative, sexually stereotyped comments to influence partnership selection.''
The judge acknowledged that ''it is indeed a strained partnership relationship that lies ahead'' for Ms. Hopkins, one that would require mutual accommodation.
He said he would order Price Waterhouse not to retaliate against her for having brought the lawsuit.Continue reading the main story