Merck sales rep files lawsuit saying company discriminates against women and pregnant women

NEW YORK, N.Y. – A Merck & Co. sales representative is suing the drugmaker for at least $100 million, saying Merck doesn’t give women equal opportunities for advancement and punishes employees for taking maternity leave.

Kelli Smith, who has worked at Merck since 2004, says in the lawsuit that the company’s sales plans create incentives to discriminate against women, that women are discouraged from advancing their careers and are told they have to choose between having being mothers and taking bigger roles at the company, and that men get more opportunities to meet senior managers and develop important contacts. She said the company retaliated against her for drawing attention to the issues.

She wants to create a class action lawsuit on behalf of women sales representatives who have worked at Merck since October 2009.

Merck confirmed Thursday that it is being sued. It said the lawsuit lacks merit and that the company will defend itself. The company said it has a strong anti-discrimination policy and it committed to providing equal opportunities to all of its employees. The company said its policy also prohibits retaliation against employees who bring complaints.

Smith says she has won awards for her work but was unfairly demoted after taking maternity leave in 2010, and was told by her team leader that she’d been demoted because of the timing of her leave. She was told she was ineligible for a prestigious company award for the same reason. She says every other member of her team received that award in 2011 except a female employee with children and a man who had just joined the company. Some of the award-winners had lower sales totals than Smith did.

The lawsuit also says the company discourages the hiring and promotion of women because compensation for managers and directors is decreased when employees take legally protected leave. For that reason management tries to get pregnant women or women who may get pregnant to leave the company so they won’t take pregnancy leave and affect compensation and sales totals.

Merck is based in Whitehouse Station, N.J., and it is the world’s third-largest drug company in terms of sales. The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey. It alleges Merck’s actions violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Shares of Merck rose 50 cents to $45.49 in afternoon trading Thursday.