As a senior manager in the Washington office of Price Waterhouse, the prominent accounting firm, Ann B. Hopkins often got evaluations of her work that read like fan letters.
"A terribly hard worker . . . always a perfect product . . . she's unbelievable . . . ," her bosses wrote. "Ann has to be one of the very best."
But in March 1983, after five years with the firm, the glowing reviews were marred by unwelcome news: she would not be making partner.
There was, it turned out, another view of Ann B. Hopkins inside the company -- a view that has been laid out in minute detail in U.S. District Court here this week as Hopkins' personality, in effect, went on trial in a sex discrimination case that could have major repercussions around the country.
"Extremely overbearing," said one partner whose opinion was solicited two years ago on whether to admit Hopkins to a coveted partnership.
"Hardworking, determined and relentless," said another. "I am bothered by the arrogance and self-centered attitude," said a third.
In a 1981 evaluation made public in court this week, one supervisor commented: " Ann Hopkins needs to be patient with superiors who are slower than she is."
"Suggest a course at charm school," said another.
Although Hopkins' candidacy was put on hold, she was not recommended again for partner and on Jan. 17 of last year, she left the firm.
Last September, Hopkins sued Price Waterhouse, asking U.S. District Judge Gerhard A. Gesell to force the company to promote her to partner. The lawsuit also asks a total of $1.2 million in damages.
The allegation: that Price Waterhouse violated Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlaws sex discrimination.
In court this week, lawyers for Hopkins argued that Hopkins, whose job performance was considered by many in the company to be superior, was guilty simply of being too pushy, and, specifically, too pushy for a woman.
The case is one of the first to be tried in the nation since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last May that partnerships like Price Waterhouse -- and like hundreds of law firms nationwide -- may be sued under Title VII.
As a result, lawyers familiar with the case said yesterday that whatever Judge Gesell decides, the case could well be headed for the Supreme Court.
Price Waterhouse, which denies any sex bias in its treatment of Hopkins, argues that while she had technical skills, Hopkins lacked "equally essential attributes" in the area of "interpersonal skills."
Commenting on its decision in 1983 to delay action on her partnership, the firm said, it almost turned her down outright "as it had turned down on numerous occasions male candidates who had been found to lack necessary interpersonal skills," the company said. Such skills, according to the firm, are a "major criterion" for making partner, for men and women alike.
In court papers, Hopkins says she played a key role in winning lucrative government contracts for Price Waterhouse's management consultant branch. One, to develop a financial management system for the State Department, was worth up to $35 million, according to Hopkins' complaint.
As she worked toward the prospect of a partnership, she says, the only advice to her from her superiors was that she "soften" her image. "In this regard, it was suggested that she wear makeup and style her hair," the lawsuit says.
Seven of Price Waterhouse's 662 partners are women, according to court papers. The company stresses that it is making increasing strides in the hiring and promotion of female employes.
Susan Fiske, a sociologist, testified for Hopkins yesterday that she found sex role stereotyping to have played "a major determining role" in the exclusion of Hopkins from a partnership.
Hopkins was the only woman among 88 candidates at the time she was considered for partner, said Fiske, and it was "extremely likely" that she was viewed in terms of her gender stereotype.
Women are expected to be "socially concerned, understanding, soft and tender" while men are typically viewed as "competitive, aggressive, independent and active."
When Hopkins behaved in a way "incongruant with the female stereotype," Fiske testified, "that's very salient to people."
"In today's business environment?" asked Gesell incredulously from the bench. "I find it difficult to believe. It's a new idea to me."