Although she was considered one of her accounting firm’s top management consultants, much of the company’s leadership was not particularly fond of Ann Hopkins in 1982.

The overwhelmingly male partners at accounting firm Price Waterhouse — now PwC — had given feedback that the company considered when it denied her a partnership that year. Their criticisms were stinging:

“Needs a course in charm school.”

“Overly aggressive.”

“Matured from a tough-talking, somewhat masculine, hard-nosed manager to an authoritative, formidable, but much more appealing lady partner candidate.”

When Hopkins was told the next year that she would never make partner at the firm, she filed a lawsuit that rose to the Supreme Court and set a precedent about workplace sex discrimination.

AD

“I think of myself as tough-minded, which is different than tough,” she told the New York Times in 1988. “To be tough-minded is to challenge whatever the assertions are.”

AD

Three decades later, the nation’s highest court is again considering whether discrimination laws protect freedom of gender expression — this time, allowing a worker to marry a person of the same sex or to display a different gender from their biological sex without negative employment repercussions.

The court on Tuesday considered whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination “because of sex” and on the basis of other characteristics, protects gay and transgender workers. More than one attorney for the two cases invoked Hopkins’s 1988 case during oral arguments.

AD

As in Hopkins’s case, the contemporary cases hinge on how broadly the justices define gender stereotyping, said Deborah Dinner, a law professor at Emory University who specializes in the legal history of gender and work.

AD

“The stereotype is that a male should dress in a certain way or perform his gender identity in a particular way or should have romantic relationships with women and not men,” Dinner said. “And so by discriminating on the basis of somebody’s gender identity or on the basis of their sexual orientation, what an employer in fact is doing is discriminating on the basis of a gender stereotype.”

Attorneys for Hopkins told the Supreme Court that she had been the only woman out of 88 candidates for partner in 1982. Supporters of her candidacy had highlighted that she secured the firm’s most valuable contract, a multimillion-dollar project with the State Department.

AD

Some of Price Waterhouse’s partners, however, described her as “overcompensated for being a woman” and criticized her use of profanity. The male boss who told Hopkins her candidacy was on hold suggested that she “walk more femininely, talk more femininely, dress more femininely, wear makeup, have her hair styled and wear jewelry.”

AD

Hopkins resigned from Price Waterhouse and started working at the World Bank. Attorneys for Price Waterhouse told the Supreme Court that the company had passed over her for partner because she had poor interpersonal skills, including being abrasive with office staff.

The court ruled 6 to 3 that an employer had to show that its hiring decisions were not based on sex stereotyping. A company that takes adverse employment action against a woman because of the belief that women should not be aggressive, for example, has inappropriately used gender to motivate its decision.

AD

Federal laws forbidding employers from discriminating against people because of their sex also are meant to ban treating men and women differently based on sex stereotypes, Justice William J. Brennan Jr. wrote in the majority opinion, quoting an earlier case.

AD

“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 do not,” Brennan wrote. “Title VII lifts women out of this bind.”

A subsequent decision by a lower-court judge forced Price Waterhouse to make Hopkins a partner and give her more than $370,000 in back pay. She rejoined the company and worked there until 2002. In other people’s employment disputes, companies now needed to be able to show that they would have made the same decision about a worker if gender had not been a factor.

AD

“I had no choice but to sue,” Hopkins told The Washington Post in 1988. “I had to do this as a matter of principle. It was inevitable and predictable. I did not set out to be a leader.”

AD

The Price Waterhouse ruling created a foundation for future court cases, said Katherine Turk, a history and gender studies professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Transgender and non-binary people had a new basis to argue that discriminating based on sexual identity is just another way to enforce the display of gender stereotypes at work.

David Cole, an attorney for a woman who says she was fired from a funeral home because she told the owners she was transgender and would transition, told the Supreme Court justices Tuesday that his client’s case addressed the same issue as Hopkins’s case and should be resolved the same way.

AD

“In firing her for failing to conform to its owner’s explicitly stated stereotypes about how men and women should behave, it discriminated against her in the same way that Price Waterhouse discriminated against Ann Hopkins for failing to walk and talk more femininely,” Cole said.

AD

Hopkins, who died last year, wrote in her 1996 memoir “So Ordered: Making Partner the Hard Way" that she wondered how her career would have been different had she been a partner at Price Waterhouse before a court ordered it.

“Would I have risen higher in the ranks to a position where I could have more effectively influenced the firm to cherish diversity?” she wrote. “Would some of the men I worked for have been working for me? I don’t know. What I do know is I never compromised on what I valued or believed.”

Read more:

AD
AD