Texas Employer Barred Men And Women From Being Alone Together, Suit Claims

Female attorney suesAs a partner at a Dallas-based law firm, Kimberly A. Elkjer felt isolated. "She just thought the guys wouldn't hang out with her, and she didn't know why," says her attorney Amy Gibson. But then, Elkjer claims, she discovered that the law firm had an actual policy that prevented that, either in the office or outside of it.

Scheef & Stone LLP allegedly had a policy banning male and female employees from working alone together, in addition to a no-fraternization policy that extended that prohibition outside the office doors. Now Elkjer is suing the firm, claiming that these bans prevented women from advancing like their male colleagues.

While the rules are no longer in effect, Elkjer's lawsuit says, they created a segregated culture that persists -- a culture that denies female attorneys the same opportunities for business and for raises as their male colleagues, and hurts their ability to work. This violates the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act, her suit states, which prohibits employers from making decisions that harm the "terms, conditions, or privileges" of employees on the basis of gender.

"If their concern was harassment or something, you wouldn't do that to African American employees," says Gibson. " 'We're afraid someone will accuse us of racial harassment, so white employees can't be alone with African American employees.' That's crazy."

Scheef & Stone lists 38 attorneys on its website, and five of them are women. In a statement, Scheef & Stone asserted that there was "no evidence" to support Elkjer's claims and no other female attorneys agree with her characterization of the work environment.

"In fact, objective evidence and our business records will clearly show that Ms. Elkjer disagrees with legitimate business decisions," the statement continued, "based on objective non-discriminatory criteria by the firm's management that have nothing to do with gender and apply to all attorneys in the firm."

The firm stated: "We are fully prepared to defend this case."

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Elkjer had raised her grievances with the firm for more than six months, according to her lawsuit, but faced hostility from the powers-that-be. She says that much of culture that she's describing comes from "the example set by one or more of the firm's managing equity partners." The lawsuit wasn't specific about the exact wording or rationale of the policy, or the years that it was in effect. Gibson says that she's concerned about violating the firm's confidentiality policy, which was brought to her attention -- in a manner she found "threatening" -- not long before she filed suit.

For years, many employers had no-fraternization policies to deter office romances; in part, there was a fear that dating could lead to sexual harassment. But segregation between men and women in the workplace has long hampered opportunities for women. Studies have found that people are more likely to mentor and support lower-level employees that resemble them, which disadvantages women in traditionally male professionals.

More:Was He Fired For Being A Man?

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's recent book, Lean In, drew attention to this issue, referencing a study published by the Center for Work-Life Policy and the Harvard Business Review, which found that senior men were often anxious about meeting with younger women at their company one-on-one. Women must also fight through stereotypes that make them less likable the more assertive and high-powered they become, research has found. In her petition, filed in Dallas County Court, Elkjer claims that women could curry favor and opportunities at Scheef & Stone by "conform[ing] to the firm's preferred stereotypes" or "accept[ing] the firm's marginalization of female attorneys."

"For example, a female attorney who's pretty no-nonsense, doesn't take any crap, is negatively viewed as aggressive," explains Gibson, "with the same characteristics that a guy would be praised."
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