Jones Day, one of the world’s largest, wealthiest law firms, was sued on Wednesday by six former female associates who accused it of engaging in gender and pregnancy discrimination by underpaying them, thwarting their advancement and pushing them out once they had children.
In their lawsuit, the women say that although Jones Day hires male and female associates in roughly equal numbers, the best work goes to men and that men are paid better and promoted more often “even when their legal skills are notably deficient.”
“In Jones Day’s fraternity culture,” the complaint says, “male brotherhood is affirmed and strengthened by comments and conduct that derogate women, leaving female associates to choose between capitulation and exclusion.”
The lawsuit is the latest effort in a continuing fight to prevent employers in many fields from penalizing female workers for having children.
In recent years, tens of thousands of women have sued big companies like AT&T, Walmart, Whole Foods and the law firm Morrison & Foerster for pregnancy discrimination, according to articles published last year by The New York Times. The articles described how in corporate settings, pregnant women and mothers were often shut out of important client meetings and denied bonuses.
On Tuesday, Tania Zarak, a former manager at Netflix, sued the company in California state court, claiming she was fired soon after she disclosed she was pregnant. In a statement, Netflix said it had determined that Ms. Zarak’s claims were “unfounded.”
According to The American Lawyer’s most recent survey of large law firms, Jones Day had more than 2,500 lawyers in 39 offices around the world and earned nearly $2 billion in annual revenue. The firm did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Two of the women suing Jones Day, Nilab Rahyar Tolton and Andrea Mazingo, say in the complaint that they worked at the firm’s office in Irvine, Calif., until last year. The other plaintiffs are not named. The suit was filed in United States District Court in Washington, D.C., and seeks $200 million in damages.
Ms. Tolton, a Harvard Law School graduate, says in the complaint that when she returned to the firm from maternity leave, she was greeted with a salary freeze, a negative performance review and fewer work opportunities. After a second maternity leave, she says, she was told to find a new job.
Ms. Mazingo, the complaint says, was sexually harassed, subjected to verbal abuse and denied mentorship opportunities, prompting her to leave the firm.
Social events organized by the firm were opportunities for male employees and clients “to harass and humiliate female attorneys,” according to the complaint.
The events cited include a dinner where a male partner told three female summer associates to sing and dance to a Care Bears song, and a gathering at a partner’s home where a male summer associate pushed a female colleague into the swimming pool to applause and high-fives.
At the office, the plaintiffs claim, women were repeatedly subjected to “sexist, sexualized comments and conduct” about their attire and appearance. Female employees who had children were stigmatized as not being committed to their work and were often fired, the complaint says.
Women who complained about a hostile environment faced “career suicide,” with many being pressured into leaving the company or forced out, the complaint says.
The plaintiffs also accuse Jones Day of running its compensation system as a “black box” controlled from the firm’s Washington headquarters by the managing partner, Stephen J. Brogan. Mr. Brogan ran the company “with essentially unchecked autonomy” and had final say over compensation packages for individual lawyers, the complaint says.