Nicholas Pfosi for The Boston Globe
If you want to know why so many women stay silent about gender discrimination in the workplace, Exhibit A may be Erika Wesson.
She is a Vanderbilt MBA who was hired as a research analyst at Fidelity Investments’ real estate group in 2007. She was the lone woman in her group and was doing well — until she wasn’t.
She suspected it was because she wasn’t one of the guys, or as her supervisor put it one day, it’s because she “didn’t drink beer, watch football, or eat meat.”
Wesson alleged gender bias to HR and got a $300,000 settlement in 2011 to leave the mutual fund giant, which has thousands of employees in its hometown of Boston. Part of the agreement was that her former employer would give her a positive reference to prospective future employers.
Six years after leaving Fidelity, Wesson remains unemployed, and that is the subject of a lawsuit that has been filed in Suffolk Superior Court against the company and her former supervisors.
A ruling from a judge is pending on whether the case will go to trial or be dismissed.
Wesson declined to talk with me, but her lawyer, Ellen Zucker, issued a statement on her behalf.
“It is the fear of every woman facing such a situation that even resolving her differences with her employer and moving on will not end the problem and that, marked a trouble maker who would not go along, her career may be derailed,” Zucker wrote. “Women turn to the courts as a last resort in the hope that a jury will understand what has happened to them and provide appropriate redress.”
The 2015 case is gaining new attention as sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the workplace dominate the headlines. It also resurfaces weeks after a pair of Fidelity fund managers were let go following allegations of sexual harassment and CEO Abby Johnson declared that the company has zero tolerance for such behavior.
In Wesson’s lawsuit, she alleges that Fidelity has violated her settlement by sabotaging her job search and is retaliating against her for reporting gender discrimination at the company.
Fidelity is vigorously fighting those claims and wants its settlement money back, plus attorney’s fees, because she has violated the terms of her exit package, including a confidentiality clause.
“Meritless claims are brought against Fidelity as they are against every large employer. In many instances, the cases are dismissed,” said Fidelity spokesman Vin Loporchio. “Even in cases where there are settlements, one cannot draw the conclusion that the case had any merit. Companies on occasion settle cases simply to avoid the exorbitant costs and inconvenience of litigation.”
Complicating the case is that the unit Wesson worked for has since been spun off from Fidelity. Even if the case had merit, the mutual fund giant believes it is no longer responsible for what happened in that unit, which is now called Long Wharf Capital. Wesson’s suit contends that Fidelity and Long Wharf remain affiliated. A spokeswoman for Long Wharf Capital declined comment.
According to court filings, Wesson has contacted over 600 employers and over 85 recruiters. She has applied for over 350 jobs and gone on about 80 job interviews and networked with hundreds of people in and out of the real estate industry.
Wesson in court documents outlined what she described as a troubling pattern. She would talk to a prospective employer and there would be initial interest, but then the lead would grow cold. Wesson alleges that her former bosses were not returning the inquiries or providing comment to potential employers, or were actually warning them to stay away.
“In instance after instance, Wesson pried open doors of opportunity only to have the Defendants cause them to be shut,” according to court documents.
In 2014, three years after leaving Fidelity, Wesson received an e-mail through her personal website that read: “Karma is a bitch isn’t it Erika?” The e-mail address, according to court filings, appeared to belong to a former Fidelity colleague.
Fidelity, in its filings, disputes that the company or her former colleagues have hurt her job search. The company said many of the examples she cites do not appear to be positions she formally applied for. The company also asserts that no prospective employer has contacted it for a reference.
So was Wesson a good employee at Fidelity?
According to court documents, she loved her job and she was good at it. She got high marks on her performance reviews and bonuses, according to a copy of her employment record (not every year, but some years).
But then in 2010, things began to change. A junior male colleague got a private office, while she remained in a cubicle. When she asked her boss why, he said she was “not worth [his] time,” her lawsuit states.
Wesson also was reassigned to report to a colleague with less experience than her.
“Despite her hard work and high performance, Wesson confronted some uncomfortable realities,” she claims in her lawsuit. “The work environment bore the mark of a boys-club, with supervisors participating. Fidelity did not want to hear it.”
Things got worse for her. Bosses raised concerns about her performance and began to monitor her work closely, she alleges. She was given low-level assignments, and her business travel was restricted.
Wesson went to human resources alleging gender bias. Fidelity investigated her claims and found them to be meritless, according to court documents.
Now it will be up to a judge to decide whether Wesson is a victim of retaliation or just a bad job prospect. It’s hard to believe someone with an MBA in a tight labor market has gone this long without a good offer.
It would have been far easier for Wesson to stay silent, but I’m glad she didn’t. The only way to break up the boys club is to keep calling them out.
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