Sex-Stereotyping Claim of Working Mother

By James Denis

May. 4, 2009

Laurie Chadwick, a working mother of an 11-year-old son and 6-year-old triplets, worked in the Maine office of health insurer WellPoint Inc. as a recovery specialist II. In 2006, Chadwick applied for promotion to “recovery specialist lead’’ or “team lead,’’ a management position, but was passed over for that promotion.

Chadwick sued under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Maine Human Rights Act. Chadwick’s Title VII claim was based on three comments relating to her family responsibilities, including comments made by her supervisor that “you have a lot on your plate’’ and “if [the three interviewers] were in your position, they would feel overwhelmed.’’

WellPoint defended its denial of the promotion on the basis that mothers with young children neglect the duties of their job due to child care obligations.

The district court dismissed Chadwick’s claims on summary judgment, finding that sex bias could not be shown in the promotion because Chadwick’s supervisor did not expressly state “that Chadwick’s sex was the basis for her assumption that Chadwick would not be able to handle the demands of work and home.’’

The Boston-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit reversed, holding that a direct reference to gender is not required to establish Chadwick’s “sex plus’’ claim—that her sex plus her status as a mother with young children resulted in adverse treatment. The court reasoned that assumptions that a woman will perform her job less well due to presumed family obligations is a form of sex stereotyping and that adverse actions on that basis constitute sex discrimination. Also, the remarks allegedly made by supervisors to Chadwick would enable a reasonable jury to find that she was passed over for a promotion based on societal stereotypes about women, work and child care. Chadwick v. WellPoint, Inc., 1st Cir., No. 08-1685 (3/26/09).

Impact: Employers are cautioned that job decisions that are based on assumptions that a woman, because she is a woman, will neglect her job responsibilities because of child care responsibilities can be evidence of sex discrimination.

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