Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins (1989)
In 1978, Ann Hopkins accepted a job in the northern Virginia office of Price Waterhouse, one of the “Big Eight” global accounting firms. Hopkins joined the firm as a consultant in its Office of Government Services, overseeing large-scale technology projects for government clients. With a master’s in mathematics, a stint at IBM building computer systems for NASA, and close to four years at Touche Ross, another of the Big Eight, Hopkins was a veteran of male-dominated environments.
She never gave her minority status much thought, though. A self-described Army brat from Texas, she grasped at an early age how to hit the ground running, even when she was the new kid in town. “I have no understanding of people who are concerned about jerking kids out of school,” she said. “I thought of it as, ‘Hey guys, what’s next?’” Spending four years at an all-women’s college also was formative. According to Hopkins, “I learned to depend on myself and on the analytical integrity of an answer to a question or a solution to a problem before I was taught to depend on or defer to members of the opposite sex or their point of view.” This didn’t mean she felt any affinity for the burgeoning feminist movement, though. “I have never given a thought to the women’s movement,” she later said. “I just kind of missed it.” Hopkins was raised wearing white gloves and attending debutante balls, but her personal style was, in her words, “wash and wear.” She also developed a fondness for motorcycles—even while wearing a suit and Ferragamo pumps, as she did when riding her Yamaha 175 to her first interview at Touche Ross in 1974.
Over the next five years at Price Waterhouse, Hopkins set about positioning herself for partnership. (During that time, she had her third child, by Cesarian section. She returned to work within a few weeks, as she had with her two prior pregnancies, also by C-section. “I needed some rest and work offered more opportunity for rest than did staying home,” she explained.) Moving from consultant to senior manager, she amassed an impressive record, including winning roughly $40 million in contracts from the U.S. Departments of State and Agriculture. The Office of Government Services leadership later described this work as being “carried out virtually at the partner level.” By the time she was put forward for promotion by the OGS in the summer of 1982, Hopkins had generated more business and billed more hours than any of the other eighty-seven candidates—all of them men.
In nominating Hopkins, the OGS partners wrote:
In her five years at the firm, she has demonstrated conclusively that
she has the capacity and the capability to contribute significantly
to the growth and profitability of the firm. Her strong character,
independence and integrity are well-recognized by her clients and
her peers. Ms. Hopkins has outstanding oral and written communication
skills. She has a good business sense, an ability to grasp
and handle quickly the most complex issues, and strong leadership
The partnership application process at Price Waterhouse was lengthy—roughly nine months—and elaborate. After each of the firm’s ninety offices put forward its roster of nominees, all of the partners were permitted to submit individual evaluations. These evaluations were “long form” or “short form,” depending on the partner’s degree of personal contact with the candidate. Those evaluations then were submitted to an Admissions Committee, which reviewed the comments and made recommendations to a Policy Board for a final decision. At the time of Hopkins’s candidacy, just seven out of the firm’s 662 partners were women—barely more than 1 percent. None of them sat on the Admissions Committee or Policy Board.
Price Waterhouse was not along in its lack of gender diversity. The Big Eight were notoriously slow to accept women into their top ranks. As one industry expert told The New York Times in the late 1980s, “The accounting firms are only now coming to the conclusion that women are as capable as men. They simply have not looked at women with the same open eye that they view men.” At Deloitte Haskins & Sells, the firm with the best record of promoting women as of 1988, fewer than 6 percent of its partners —just 48 out of the firm’s 850—were women. Arthur Andersen’s partnership was just 3 percent female. But Price Waterhouse had the lowest numbers of the group. By the late 1980s, five years after Hopkins’s candidacy, the number of women partners had crept up to a mere 2 percent.
In April 1983, Lew Krulwich, an OGS senior partner, summoned Hopkins to his downtown Washington office to deliver the news. Although more than half the nominees had been promoted, Hopkins wasn’t one of them. The Admissions Committee instead had recommended a “hold” on her candidacy, and the Policy Board had agreed. It wasn’t an outright denial, but Hopkins would have to wait for the next year’s cycle to begin, get renominated by OGS, and then go through the firm-wide evaluation process all over again. (So would the nineteen men who were also put on one-year holds.) Krulwich didn’t have many answers for what had gone wrong, except for what he had been told by Hopkins’s mentor in OGS, Tom Beyer, who was on vacation in the Cayman Islands: Hopkins had “consistently irritated senior partners of the firm.” When Beyer returned, that was all he could tell Hopkins too. A few days later, she flew to New York to meet with the firm’s senior partner, Joe Connor, to get more details.
Connor “was pleasant, but there was no warmth about him,” Hopkins recalled. She “listened in horror” as he read the remarks of the reviewers who had recommended denying or putting a hold on her application for partnership. None concerned the business she had generated or the clients she had managed. They were only about her interpersonal skills. Hopkins needed “a course in charm school.” She was “overly aggressive, unduly harsh, difficult to work with and impatient with staff” and “overcompensated for being a woman.”
Even her supporters’ remarks lent credence to this unflattering picture. One wrote that Hopkins had “matured from a tough-talking somewhat masculine hard-nosed manager to an authoritative, formidable, but much more appealing lady partner candidate.” Another acknowledged, “‘Ann has a clearly different personality,’” but “‘many male partners are worse than Ann (language and tough personality).’” The reviewer surmised that critics were focusing on her profanity “‘because it’s a lady using foul language.’” Another conceded that Hopkins initially came across as “macho,” but said, “‘if you get around the personality thing she’s at the top of the list or way above average.’”
Hopkins left Connor’s office with little sense of what she could do to make partner when the new nomination cycle started up again in a few months. Back in Washington, she arranged a meeting with Tom Beyer, head partner of OGS and her chief champion, to discuss how to best position her candidacy. His advice?
“Walk more femininely, talk more femininely, dress more femininely, wear make-up, have your hair styled, and wear jewelry.”
Hopkins later wrote of this period, “I was miserable, depressed, furious, disconsolate, and inconsolable in cycles.” Her “normally unshakeable confidence,” she said, “had been destroyed. I wondered how I would tell my staff, friends, and colleagues. Five years of long hours, hard work, and remarkable results were down the tubes.” Nevertheless, she swallowed her humiliation and attended the office-wide celebrations for all of the new partners, “stoically and with all the dignity I could muster.” Her husband counseled a more combative stance. “Sue the bastards” was his advice. But Hopkins wasn’t ready to declare war. She would see how things played out the second time around.
She didn’t have to wait long. Four months later, Hopkins learned that two of the OGS partners who previously had supported her partnership had changed their minds. There wasn’t going to be a second time around, because she wasn’t even going to be nominated by her own department.
Meanwhile, the men who had been placed on hold along with Hopkins fared much better. Fifteen out of the nineteen were promoted to partner that year.
Hopkins contacted a friend who was a partner at the blue-chip law firm of Arnold and Porter. He gave her a list of attorneys, and because the first person on the list was out of town, she met with the second one, Doug Huron. Out of law school for little more than a decade, Huron had already amassed an impressive resume working for the federal government, first at the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division—where, alongside the Southern Poverty Law Center, he had helped to desegregate the Alabama state troopers—and then in the White House Counsel’s office during the Carter administration. After leaving the White House, he’d opened a private practice with a partner, Eileen Stein, in a modest Washington, DC, townhouse.
After hearing the basics of Hopkins’s career at Price Waterhouse and the events leading up to the partnership denial, Huron wanted to know more about the overall environment at the firm. Hopkins realized that she hadn’t given much thought to whether it was hostile to women. “I was either naïve or I wasn’t paying attention,” she later reflected. Huron wanted to know about whether she had heard any sexist comments (“There were none that I could recall, but then, I infrequently recognized sexist comments” was Hopkins’s response) and the statistical composition of the partners (“Other than to note that demographically they seemed to be a largely male, largely white population, I had too few facts to be informative”)
Although these blanks would need to be filled in, Huron had heard enough to conclude that Hopkins had experienced discrimination. There was something awry when a candidate who had brought in $40 million of business, won high marks from her clients, and earned the unanimous support of her department was turned down because eight men who barely knew her didn’t like her personality. For her part, Hopkins was still getting used to the idea that “discrimination” even described her situation; she was still calling her partnership denial just a “bad business decision.”
“The only context I had for discrimination and civil rights was what had taken place in Gadsden, Selma, Birmingham, and the like in my college years,” she admitted. “The fact that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 might apply to me had only recently come to the forefront of my conscious thinking.”
It wasn’t entirely clear in the spring of 1983 that Title VII, written to protect employees from employers’ bias, would cover a denial of a partnership; unlike managers in a typical corporate entity, the Price Waterhouse partners all shared in the firm’s collective decision making, including decisions about who would join their ranks. A case involving an Atlanta law firm’s decision to deny a woman a partnership, Hishon v. King & Spalding, was pending review in the Supreme Court, but until Hishon was resolved, Doug Huron hedged his bets. He filed a lawsuit in DC Superior Court alleging violations of the local law against sex discrimination while also filing a charge with the EEOC to preserve the right to eventually file a Title VII lawsuit in federal court.
In the meantime, Hopkins was desperate to leave Price Waterhouse, but Huron told her to hold tight; if she quit, she couldn’t recover any future lost wages unless she could claim she had been “constructively discharged.” Constructive discharge was tough to prove. The prevailing legal standard required a plaintiff to show that her working conditions had been made so “intolerable” that she had to leave. Only then could she quit and still be treated, by law, as if she had been fired—which would entitle her to recover damages for losing her job. Hopkins may have been miserable about the nosedive her career had taken at Price Waterhouse, but that wasn’t enough to make the job “intolerable.” It was admittedly a murky line. Hopkins waited for Huron to tell her she had crossed it.
It only took four more months. Soon after Hopkins consulted Huron, her mentor Tom Beyer told her she had three options: Get a new job, transfer to a different department within Price Waterhouse, or—Beyer’s top recommendation—forget about making partner and accept a second-tier existence as a “career manager” at the firm. Things deteriorated further when she got the results of a “quality control review” of her past work that, for the first time in her tenure, gave her low marks. Then one of the OGS partners who had withdrawn his support for Hopkins’s renewed partnership bid began inserting himself into her newest project for the State Department, subjecting it to repeated, fine-tooth-comb audits. She returned from a work trip abroad to find her belongings packed up and moved to a new office, though no one could tell her where that was. By December 1983, Hopkins “was barely hanging on by my psychological fingernails” when Huron gave her the okay. In his judgment, she had reached the “intolerable” threshold that would qualify her for a constructive discharge claim. Hopkins resigned four days before Christmas.
A few months later, the Supreme Court decided Hishon, unanimously ruling that Title VII did extend to decisions denying partnership.
Huron obtained a right-to-sue notice from the EEOC and headed to federal court. Hopkins v. Price Waterhouse was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in September 1984. In addition to seeking reimbursement of lost wages and attorneys’ fees, the complaint asked the court for an order making Ann Hopkins a partner at Price Waterhouse.