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Ann Hopkins Case: an Examination of Hiring Process Discrimination

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Ann Hopkins was portrayed in our Harvard Business Review case as a strong, smart, and aggressive hard-worker. She moved her way up through many impressive jobs: a mathematician at IBM, a computer science and usage manager dealing with NASA accounts, and a systems management consultant at a prominent accounting firm, Touche Ross. She took her jobs seriously and when it became time to be made partner at her most impressive job yet as a management consultant at Price Waterhouse, Hopkins and many others believed her a strong candidate sure to make partner. However, a surprising string of events placed her on permanent “hold”, doubtful to ever make partner.

1. Why wasn’t Ann Hopkins made a partner?

In 1982, 32 Price Waterhouse partners, all male, evaluated 88 partner candidates, of which Hopkins was the only female. Only 13 out of 32 partners supported the decision to make her partner at the time of evaluation. Ann had put in more hours and brought in more business for the company than all other candidates that year, so she and her colleagues were immediately confused as to why she was not promoted. According to the firm’s chairman, Joseph Connor, Ann needed to “relax and take charge less often” (Badaracco, 2001). Thomas Beyer, the partner at the Office of Government Services that had put in the initial recommendation for her candidacy, had told her before to make her appearance more feminine through the use of makeup, quieter colors, and hair styling. Again, after her candidacy was denied, Beyer suggested that making her manner more generally feminine might afford her the partnership position. Soon thereafter, she lost her OGS partner support and subsequently her nomination for partner (Badaracco, 2001).

Ann Hopkins by all means should have been made a partner. But instead of valuing her experience, talent, credentials, and skills that should have earned her partnership, those evaluating her judged her by her less-than-feminine style and mannerisms. While other male candidates were judged as being aggressive and overbearing and praised with the promotion, the male-dominated evaluation committee decided Hopkins’ aggressive and overbearing behavior was over the top. In other words, these traits that could be considered an asset for this difficult profession by males were being considered as wrong for a female.

In HR3, DeNisi and Griffin explain that this sort of discrimination is called disparate treatment, defined as “differential treatment based on race, sex, religion, age, national origin, or disability status” (2016). In Hopkins’ case, the disparate treatment would be based on sex. Hopkins’ evaluators treated her differently because she was female, whereas if she were a male, there would be no consideration of her hair, carrying a briefcase, or aggressive nature in the boardroom. She was expected to act a certain way that her evaluators deemed acceptable for a female, and because she didn’t, she was refused a promotion.

Apart from this, it could be considered that the male-dominated partnership at Price Waterhouse aimed to remain male-dominated by taking measures to prevent female partnerships. Vincent Roscigno describes this as “social closure” or when a “status group” with certain advantages and perks purposefully intends to remain closed to other groups by barring their acceptance (2007). This goes to say, even if Hopkins had altered her hair style, her makeup, and made herself more feminine altogether, what would they require of her next?Learning to juggle?Where would the instructions stop?Or, is their intention to never stop?

Later in his book, Roscigno goes on to describe that women in particular may have difficulty specifically when being considered for promotions because they are held to a “higher standard” (2007). In Hopkins’ case, this is most certainly an issue as the list of her expectations seemed much longer than other candidates who had even less experience and talent.

2. Was the problem avoidable?If so, how?

In 1982, even this large of a company was not entirely accustomed to having women in high positions of power. Ann Hopkins would have been among the first female candidates for partnership at Price Waterhouse. This is no excuse for her treatment, but it does help explain why the partner evaluation committee was so oblivious to the practice of equal treatment in the hiring process. Since the enactment of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, however, ignorance is not acceptable. Especially in a company like Price Waterhouse, this sort of discrimination can be prevented with appropriate human resources management procedures, education, and protocols.

In this case, I believe proper education of all personnel could have prevented the issue. If everyone involved with Price Waterhouse consulting were required to take a small course on discrimination and the hiring process, for instance, they would know that requesting a female to act more feminine is not acceptable advice for promotion or advancement. They would also know to spend more time paying attention to general aptitude for the profession rather than what gender norms the candidate may or may not adhere.

Beyond education, Price Waterhouse exhibits a corporate culture of discrimination, making for an unhealthy and unlawful hiring process. One of the hardest things to change in a business is the culture, because it is a fluid social occurrence that governs practically everything that happens in the workplace. At Price Waterhouse, the discriminative work culture accepted a committee’s decision to not hire based on sexist expectations. In a male-dominated company, this can be all too common (especially under the constructs of the before-said social closure practice). Understanding that work culture can be toxic and lead to issues like this, Tristin Green cites in her article “Work Culture and Discrimination” that this is all the more reason for businesses to create mindful business “reform” initiatives (2005). She explains that this is why certain infractions might be hard for businesses to pinpoint on any one action; it is difficult to recognize this sort of cultural issue in a business. In this case, the deceptive nature of work culture only adds to Hopkins’ frustration. Without being properly informed of what sexual discrimination might look like, she could consider the decision to deny her promotion simply a wrong decision by the evaluation committee rather than a serious discriminative infraction.

3. Clearly, there were aspects of Hopkin’s behavior that clashed with the accepted norms, particularly those applied to women.

Why didn’t the company raise these issues with her sooner? Why didn’t she make a stronger effort to change when she did finally receive some feedback?

Before her consideration for candidacy, she had worked on 4 successful projects under the company. She had handled these professionally and with flying colors. At times her colleagues judged her hard leadership style, but other than that, she was by all means successful. When it came time to aim for a partnership position, she could care less that she was not very feminine in character or appearance. All that mattered was that she was great at her job. The case actually nods at her high recommendation for 1982 candidacy, saying she was “virtually at partnership level” already (Badaracco 2001). At the time, there were 7 other female partners at Price Waterhouse, so sexual discrimination probably was far off her radar.

When Price Waterhouse finally tried to give her feedback, it was implied to be more based on physical appearance than leadership abilities. So, she paid the feedback no mind. After all, the promotion should be based on her skills and talents, not based on how she looked.

4. What do you make of Thomas Beyer’s behavior?

Thomas Beyer’s intentions were good. In the case, he says he admired Hopkins skills and abilities. However, his remarks telling Hopkins she needed to alter herself physically are sexist and offensive. He might have been trying to help her look and act like other female partners at Price Waterhouse, but advising Hopkins to adhere to traditional gender roles should not have any place in the workplace.

5. If you were Beyer and you wanted to help Ann Hopkins become a partner, what would you have told her?

If I were Beyer, my only feedback for Hopkins would be based on her leadership abilities. For instance, the case said that she was lacking in interpersonal skills. Perhaps I would tell Hopkins politely that softening her approach when offering feedback could help her strategically. As a leader, it is very important to take time to listen, so maybe I would tell Hopkins to remember her listening skills.

After that, I would tell Hopkins to remember her value as a business person. She possessed talents and abilities that already qualified her for a partnership position. If the committee can’t see that, then something is wrong.

6. What should Ann Hopkins do now?

According to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, Price Waterhouse is legally required to give Hopkins an equal opportunity for candidacy aside from her sex and gender. Given Hopkins’ credentials, the unusual advice given to her after the declined promotion, and her later revoked candidacy, she most certainly should involve a lawyer to investigate any foul play.

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