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Gender Wars: Cigna Exec Claims She Was Denied Promotion Over a "Style Thing"

A female Cigna (CI) executive responsible for contracting with hospitals, physician groups and other health care providers claims she was denied pay raises and promotions because of a "style thing" and because she was "too aggressive," according to a sex discrimination suit.

The suit, in which Cigna contracting manager Bretta Karp is seeking class-action status, raises an old chestnut in the workplace gender wars: Whether women are judged on their appearance or demeanor. Men are almost never judged that way, and are often encouraged to be more aggressive in business.

Conservative corporate culture
That could be a particularly interesting question for Cigna, which historically has had a conservative corporate culture. Disclosure: I worked at Cigna's home office in Bloomfield, Conn., for four months in 1993 as a temp in the Individual Insurance marketing department.

Cigna wants the case dismissed on the grounds that it ought to be in confidential arbitration.

In the case, Karp claims she was denied a promotion after one of her bosses said that despite her qualifications -- nearly two decades in healthcare contracting and an MBA -- the selection "may come down to a style thing." The suit says:

On August 24, 2010, Mrs. Karp was notified that she would not receive the PCD position because she "came across as too aggressive" in the interviews.
Cigna then gave the position to Bill O'Donnell, an allegedly less-experienced male employee who had been with Cigna for only two years. O'Donnell then allegedly took the important Vermont contracting territory from Karp's portfolio and did not assign any duties to make up for the loss.

Karp worked out of Cigna's Newton, Mass., office, according to her suit. I don't know what the atmosphere was like there, but the gigantic Connecticut corporate campus had a Stepford quality to it. It's a vast, glass-walled cube farm served by mail delivery robots (pictured).

The Individual Insurance department was staffed almost entirely by women (I was one of only two men in it). The sales force -- for whom I wrote newsletters -- seemed to be mostly men. Everyone seemed to be married with children or pregnant (a not unexpected outcome given that Cigna's health insurance for its own employees was probably excellent). There was only one single woman with no kids in the department. On one hot day that summer a woman in a different department came to work in a halter top. The women of Individual Insurance were shocked at her inappropriate dress sense.

Our job was to sell life insurance policies to millionaires, which had the effect of reducing their taxes. That year, President Clinton was attempting to pass his doomed healthcare reform bill. One lunchtime, Cigna's chieftains gathered every employee at Bloomfield into the building's echoing central atrium where we told that Cigna wasn't against health reform -- just this version of health reform.

None of this has any bearing on the Karp case, of course. But it doesn't exactly surprise me that a female Cigna employee may have fallen afoul of one of the company's unwritten "style" codes.


Cigna images by Flickr user douglemoin, CC.
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