Let Them Eat Cake...But Serve It Themselves: One Woman's Fight against Gender Discrimination and Retaliation

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In a widely publicized $20 million lawsuit filed in New York, Plaintiff Nancy Saltzman is suing her former employer, ExlService Holdings, Inc., alleging gender discrimination and retaliation resulting in the loss of her job and damage to her reputation.

Saltzman served as the general counsel and chief compliance officer for ExlService from 2014 until she was fired in mid-2018. In her suit, Saltzman alleges that ExlService’s male executives “treated [her] as inferior, took steps to exclude her from her career and advancement opportunities, subjected her to enhanced scrutiny, and micromanaged her” throughout her tenure with the data analytics and outsourcing provider.

Saltzman’s complaint highlights the company’s sexist extremes and outlines its efforts to prevent Saltzman from having a prominent voice despite her high rank. For example, the CEO of ExlService removed Saltzman from a diversity project when she was the only female member of Exl’s executive committee. The value of a female perspective on the committee was ignored, even though it was desperately needed, as the vice president proposed handing out men’s neckties as a diversity gift.

In May 2018, Saltzman attended ExlService’s 19th-anniversary party. The CEO directed Saltzman and the three other women present (out of 20-30 employees in attendance) to cut the cake, insisting that it was a job for the “ladies” and “the men stood around the room and waited until the Company’s female employees served plates of cake to the men one-by-one.” The “ladies” were high-level employees and served cake to many men who were junior in rank.

The directive for the female employees to pass out the cake reflected a broader problem in the company’s culture: the women had to jump through hoops to take any steps which would help them grow in their careers—for example, to have travel approved or to sit on committees—that the men did not.

Saltzman made an internal complaint of gender discrimination following the cake incident and was fired less than two months later. Despite the fact that Saltzman explicitly stated that she would like to remain with the company as long as the male executives’ discriminatory conduct was addressed, the CEO failed to address her complaint and claimed that she had tendered her resignation. Saltzman further alleges that the company then retaliated against her by forcing her to exit on an expedited timeline and without the resources she needed to effectively transition her duties. The manner in which she was forced to carry out her transition, she claims, was designed to harm her reputation in the company and in the corporate legal industry.

Prohibiting retaliation is essential in carrying out the purpose of state and federal statutes that protect individuals from unlawful harassment and discrimination. Employers are prohibited from firing, demoting, harassing, or in any other way retaliating against an individual for filing a complaint of discrimination, participating in a discrimination proceeding, or otherwise opposing discrimination. To comply with such laws, ExlService should have taken steps to address and correct the male employees’ conduct and should have allowed Saltzman to remain employed in a work environment free of discrimination.

ExlService’s male executives underestimated and failed to reap the benefits of Saltzman’s years of experience, an impressive list of contacts, and willingness to spearhead new programs and projects that would propel the company forward. Instead, the company’s senior leadership acted out on their gender-based biases and focused on Ms. Saltzman’s ability to serve the cake as a “lady” should.

Regardless of the outcome, the case holds a lesson for employers and employees. Employers should value and leverage the contributions of their female employees, and take corrective, rather than retaliatory, action if any complaints are made about biases impacting the workplace. Meanwhile, employees should feel empowered to speak up when they are not being treated as equals and know that rather than serving cake, they are owed respect and a piece of the company pie, too.