Gender equality is a serious issue but extreme
discrimination lawsuits that seek stupid amounts of money do more
damage than good.

KPMG US is being sued $350 million in a class
action brought about by former employee Donna Kassman. Yes, that’s
right, 350,000,000 big ones, in case you thought the last sentence
contained a typo or two.

Kassman, who worked at KPMG’s New York office
for 17 years, alleges the firm prevented her opportunities to climb
to the top and that she was given a pay cut prior to maternity

KPMG has denied the allegations and pointed
out that the law firm representing Kassman is well known for
bringing about employment discrimination disputes. Sanford Wittels
& Heisler is pursuing gender discrimination claims against
French advertising company Publicis Group, Japanese electronics
maker Toshiba, Bayer HealthCare Pharmaceuticals and health insurer
Cigna Corp.

Kassman alleges that KPMG cut her salary by
$20,000 ‘without any business justification’ when she took
maternity leave. Her claim also alleges men conspired against
her when she was in line for promotion to managing director.

If, and this is a big ‘if’, KPMG did cut her
pay due to maternity leave then the firm needs to seriously rethink
its remuneration policy, which would be outdated and flawed and
doesn’t belong to this day and age.

The insinuation she was denied opportunities
because of her sex and her decision to have a child is a much more
difficult claim to prove.

Businesses do get affected by maternity leave
and this can have an impact upon the career of a woman, but does it
prevent women from reaching the top?

I suspect it might, but it’s not a specific
problem within the accounting profession, rather a broader problem
within corporate culture, and It is changing, slowly.

There are plenty of high achieving women
within the accounting profession.

For example, I regularly speak to RSM
International CEO Jean Stephens, Morison International CEO Liza
Robbins and PwC UK public policy guru Pauline Wallace, to name a
few. They are some of my closest contacts because they are bright,
intelligent thought leaders who contribute significantly to the
profession I report on.

Gender gap closing

A couple of year’s ago, the International
Accounting Bulletin
carried out research
that tackled gender diversity

What we discovered is that the gender balance
among professionals is evening out but there is still a significant
imbalance at the senior executive and partner level.

Russia has the largest proportion of women at
senior level with 37 percent, however the imbalance in Russia is
getting worse.

In other countries it is improving. The UK
reported the greatest improvement in opportunities for women at
senior level. In 1998, only 6 percent of senior positions were held
by women but in 2008 this increased to 20 percent.

In South Africa, 29 percent of partners and
senior executives are women and in Australia it drops to 12
percent. Japan has the most unequal firms with only 3 percent of
senior positions filled by women.

Punishment must fit crime

The problem with Kassman’s lawsuit is that it
makes it hard to be sympathetic to a plaintiff when her class
action seeks nearly 10,000 times my own salary for claims that are
probably hard to prove, even if they have merit. Children in Africa
starve to death each day and this money would be better spent
helping their tragic cause.

This claim highlights broader problems with
the US legal system than anything else – a system that makes some
accounting networks paranoid to refer to their US member firms as
‘network firms’.

How ridiculous claims like this see the light
of day, dragging reputable businesses through messy court cases, is
anyone’s guess, but as a media outlet I have the responsibility to
report it.

If there is a serious problem, why didn’t
Kassman influence change during her 17 years at the firm?

Maybe she tried, and failed, who knows?
Regardless, surely there is a better avenue to influence meaningful
change to a business than the courts.

From my years of experience covering the
profession, accounting firms are making strides to improve gender
inequality and they take this issue very seriously. Like most
industries, there is a long way to go.

I would like to see a day when women are treated equally to men
at the upper echelons of business. I would also like to see a day
when US legal claims are proportionate to the crime and can be
taken seriously.