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Ann Hopkins, Winner of a Workplace Bias Fight, Dies at 74

By her own admission, Ann Hopkins could be abrasive, vulgar, relentless and impatient in the office.

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Brooks Barnes
, New York Times

By her own admission, Ann Hopkins could be abrasive, vulgar, relentless and impatient in the office.

She was also one of the best young consultants that Price Waterhouse had in 1982 in its Washington branch, according to managers who put her up for a partnership that year. She had billed more hours than any of her counterparts — all of whom were men — and had helped secure a government contract that was then one of the largest deals in the accounting firm’s history.

Her partnership was denied.

Leaders at Price Waterhouse criticized her as “macho,” “difficult” and “aggressive,” according to a book she would later write. One male supervisor told Hopkins that, to have any chance of becoming a partner, she needed to “walk more femininely, talk more femininely, dress more femininely, wear makeup, have her hair styled and wear jewelry.”

She found vindication in the courts, waging a seven-year battle against Price Waterhouse that resulted in a 6-3 victory in the Supreme Court. The ruling expanded workplace discrimination protections to include gender stereotyping. More recently, her case has figured into the transgender rights movement.

Hopkins died on June 23 at her home in Washington. She was 74. Her daughter, Tela Gallagher Mathias, said the cause was acute peripheral sensory neuropathy, a rare rapid-onset illness with symptoms that include paralysis.

“My mother — who could be prickly, absolutely — lived in accordance with her values, and one of her most firmly held beliefs was that diversity always, always, always makes something better,” Mathias said in an interview.

She added, “You either loved her fiercely or you couldn’t stand being in the same room with her.”

Hopkins wrote about her career in a 1996 memoir, “So Ordered: Making Partner the Hard Way,” in which she described herself as a person who was as deeply committed to her career as she was to being herself. She liked to smoke and drink beer. In 1974, when she landed an interview at Touche Ross, a major accounting firm, she wore a crisply pressed suit and Ferragamo pumps and rode to the appointment on a Yamaha motorcycle.

But Hopkins was reluctant to deem herself a civil rights heroine.

“I’m not a leading-edge person,” she told the Long Island newspaper Newsday after her final court victory in 1990. In an interview that year with The Boston Globe, she said, “The only thing that makes me remarkable is that I happened to stand up for a particular principle at a particular time.”

And enough with this talk about feminism and glass ceilings, Hopkins insisted at the time. “Lord knows if I put a crack in it,” she said.

Time has left no doubt.

With its ruling in her case, the Supreme Court established that discrimination based on gender stereotyping was indeed barred by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In his lead opinion, Justice William Brennan wrote, “An employer who objects to aggressiveness in women but whose positions require this trait places women in an intolerable and impermissible Catch-22: out of a job if they behave aggressively and out of a job if they don’t.”

The Supreme Court also put the burden on employers to prove they did not discriminate illegally, once an employee had shown that bias played a role in personnel decisions. The Hopkins case has since been used by effeminate men to protect themselves against workplace discrimination. It also pushed partnership-based businesses — law firms, medical practices — to use more objective standards and better documentation in selecting partners.

In 2014, the Obama administration cited Hopkins’ case, among others, to declare that Title VII encompasses “discrimination based on gender identity, including transgender status.” That position led to a 2016 federal lawsuit claiming that North Carolina had broken civil rights law in denying bathroom choice based on gender identity. (North Carolina eventually repealed the bathroom law. Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed the Obama administration’s position on Title VII and transgender protections last year.)

Ann Branigar Hopkins was born in Galveston, Texas, on Dec. 18, 1943, the oldest of three children born to John and Tela (Chiles) Hopkins. Her father was an Army officer, and her mother, who had an earlier marriage, was a nurse.

As a military family the Hopkinses lived in Germany, Kansas and Tennessee. Hopkins attended Hollins University, a women’s institution in Roanoke, Virginia, and received a graduate degree in mathematics from Indiana University.

She worked for a short time at IBM before taking the job at Touche Ross. She married Tom Gallagher, a Touche Ross employee, in 1974, keeping her name, and had three children with him. The marriage ended in divorce in the late 1980s.

Hopkins started working for Price Waterhouse in 1978. After she was twice denied a partnership (in 1982 and the next year), she sued the company for discrimination and won in two federal courts. Price Waterhouse then appealed to the Supreme Court, which accepted the case in 1988.

In ruling in Hopkins’ favor, the justices also sent the case back to a lower court to give Price Waterhouse the chance to prove it had valid nondiscriminatory reasons for passing her over. That court ruled against Price Waterhouse in 1990, ordering the company to grant Hopkins the partnership she had been denied — should she still want it — and pay her $370,000 in back wages, or about $732,000 in today’s money.

Even though Price Waterhouse had made it abundantly clear that she was unwanted, she claimed her partnership. In an interview with The New York Times, she explained that she wanted a chance to use her skills at a top-notch firm and that, in any case, many of her colleagues who had criticized her were no longer in the Washington office.

She worked for the firm until her retirement in 2002.

Mathias said her mother had been proud to have spent so much of her career drilling excellence into young consultants at the company, which is now PwC.

“I would describe her as a reluctant civil rights landmark, a Texan, a constant gardener and an excellent baker of pies,” Mathias said. “She didn’t even like pie. But she’d bring six. That was her way of showing love.”

Besides her daughter, she is survived by a son, Thomas; a sister, Susan Wilmer; a brother, John; and five grandchildren. Her youngest son, Peter, was killed in a car accident in 2000. Fred Tombar, who worked for Hopkins for five years at Price Waterhouse starting in 1994, said that her sometimes harsh demeanor masked traits like generosity and loyalty. Yes, she used extremely salty language, he said, but she could also be wickedly funny.

“Her expectations were through the roof, and if you didn’t meet them, she let you know in clear and unambiguous terms,” Tombar said. “That intimidated some people. But many of us took it as an opportunity to learn and grow. She had a direct and immeasurable impact on me.”

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