After months of receiving good reviews for her work as a communications manager at San Carlos biotech company Natera, Melissa Blain Johnson had aspirations of applying for a marketing director role likely to open up at the biotech company where she had worked for just under a year before she went on maternity leave in May of 2017.
In the more than 10 months since she began work as at the genetic testing and diagnostics company, Johnson had received an award for her work on the launch of a new version of the company’s website and been told by her manager she was on a track to advance quickly in the company. She said she was encouraged by another manager to apply for the role just before she gave birth to her son and expected to learn more about it in the coming months.
But instead, she got word from the company she was receiving a demotion in August while she was still on maternity leave. And when she reviewed the job description for her new role, she found the text matched a description she had drafted for months before for a copywriter position she had planned to hire before her pregnancy.
Initially, Johnson thought the description had been sent in error, but she learned it was the one intended for her, and that any discussion of the change would be reserved for after her return from maternity leave.
Until then, Johnson had dismissed events leading up to her maternity leave that had made her feel as though her pregnancy could negatively affect her work prospects, including the removal of her direct report and an email from the company’s vice president of marketing pressuring her and another pregnant coworker to use Natera’s genetic testing products as well as those made by a competitor.
But when she learned of her demotion, together with news the company had filled the open marketing director position without giving her a chance to apply for it, Johnson began to see the company’s actions as discriminating against her.
“I just couldn’t deny it anymore,” she said. “That was when I finally said ‘this is discriminatory.’”
For Johnson, who left the company in June, the demotion was already one of several actions taken by company managers and executives that made her feel like her pregnancy could pose a problem or be used as an opportunity to help the company fill a knowledge gap. But she said she couldn’t have imagined that, after filing complaints with the company about gender discrimination, she would become the subject of retaliation she allege took many forms, including leaving her out of meetings, overly scrutinizing her work and being urged against proceeding with her complaints by the company’s vice president of marketing.
In a lawsuit filed with the San Mateo County Superior Court last week, Johnson is alleging the company discriminated against her on the basis of her pregnancy and gender. She also alleges the company failed to reasonably accommodate her requests for ergonomic support to address back pain when she was seven months pregnant and extra time to complete assignments upon her return from leave. The suit also outlines several actions company employees took in retaliation after she raised concerns about the way she was treated, among other charges.
A Natera spokeswoman confirmed in an email employee matters are confidential, and a prepared statement from the company affirmed Natera does not discriminate against employees on any basis and allegations to the contrary are untrue.
“Melissa Blain Johnson resigned and her employment at Natera was not influenced inappropriately by her pregnancy or subsequent maternity leave,” according to the company statement. “As a leading women’s health company, we are proud of our support for women in and out of the workplace. We are committed to supporting a diverse and empowered workforce, providing competitive maternity leave benefits, and operating with integrity and quality.”
Request for genetic testing
Among the instances that alarmed Johnson in the weeks leading up to her son’s birth was being included in an email from Ramesh Hariharan, the company’s vice president of marketing and medical education, stating “we should request pregnant woman on our teams (Blain and [name redacted]) to get tested by our competitors … where we have knowledge gaps … we will pay for the test and get H2H data,” according to the suit.
Johnson said the non-invasive prenatal testing product Hariharan was referring to requires mothers to take a blood test and wait several weeks for the company to analyze fetal DNA in the mother’s bloodstream and detect the likelihood of chromosomal abnormalities in the fetus.
“You’re testing to see if there’s a problem with your baby,” she said.
Johnson said she spent four days thinking about whether she should respond to the email, weighing how important the market research would be for the company and what it would be like for other employees to review her baby’s genetic information. She said she ultimately didn’t respond to the email and Hariharan never followed up with her on the issue, but did hear in informal conversations at the workplace that other pregnant employees had related communications with other executives and director-level employees at the company.
In the weeks following her return to work from leave, Johnson filed an anonymous complaint about her demotion with the company, as well as complaints with the company’s marketing director and Hariharan’s executive assistant, according to the suit.
In the weeks following her return, Johnson alleges she was stripped of her management responsibilities, her work was overly scrutinized and heard from other employees Hariharan was planning to put something negative in her review because of “all the trouble” she had caused with her complaints, according to the suit.
Johnson met with Hariharan in January after she complained about the company’s maternity leave policy at a meeting with several employees, and alleges he told her he respected and liked her work and that she would not have a problem finding a job elsewhere and that she didn’t have to do this. She claims he told her “the world is small” and that he would extend his entire network to her if she did not proceed with her complaints, according to the suit.
Resignation, departure from Bay Area
Johnson took several disability leaves for depression and anxiety before she was forced to resign June 1. Her physician advised her to take extended leave and noted her mental health was deteriorating under the stress of the company’s discriminatory and retaliatory actions against her, according to the suit.
Johnson, 34, said she is taking time to figure out what’s next for her career. Having worked in communications for more than 12 years, Johnson said she plans to return to the field, but worries about the gap in her resume and whether she’ll have success in the biotech industry after she has spoken out.
“It really ruined my confidence,” she said. “[My career] has been something that I’ve done well in. To have that derailed was a really destabilizing event.”
Formerly a San Francisco resident, Johnson said she, her husband and her 13-month-old son recently moved out of the Bay Area having found it difficult to afford living in San Francisco without two incomes.
Having represented other woman in similar situations, Johnson’s attorneys Jayme Walker of the firm Gwilliam Ivary Chiosso Cavalli & Brewer and Erika Jacobsen White of the firm Jacobsen White Law said the pregnancy discrimination Johnson faced is pervasive across industries and regions. Walker noted pregnancy discrimination comes at a time when women are particularly vulnerable and adjusting to new identities as mothers, and that it’s not uncommon for those who lose their jobs because of pregnancy discrimination to struggle to re-enter the workforce.
“I think that that is something that can really take women out of the workforce,” she said. “This kind of discrimination has a devastating effect on people’s careers and on their lives.”
In being encouraged by a company executive to stop pursuing her complaints, Johnson faced notable pressure to take back her concerns about the treatment she received, said White. She said the company’s lack of response to Johnson’s complaints shows its leaders do not take gender discrimination seriously, a trend White, Walker and Johnson are hoping to reverse in filing the suit.
“I think a lot of women face that kind of pressure and it’s often not quite as explicit,” said White. “They made it really clear that complaints are not welcome here.”
Johnson said she is hoping the suit not only brings the company to acknowledge its treatment of her was wrong, but also helps sparks more broad conversations in workplaces across industries about how to treat genders equally.
“I hope that this sparks a conversation and that we just continue to look for ways bring equality to the workplace,” she said.
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