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Qualcomm deal speaks to gender bias in tech sector

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The issues that led Qualcomm Inc. to agree to pay $19.5 million to forestall a planned gender discrimination lawsuit reflect a culture typical among technology firms, observers say.and

San Diego-based Qualcomm's settlement affecting 3,290 females who work in science, technology, engineering and math-related positions was reached before the lawsuit was formally filed and without in-court litigation, according to court papers in the case filed by plaintiff law firm Sanford Heisler L.L.P. based in New York.

Under the settlement, which is subject to approval of the U.S. District Court in San Diego, Qualcomm also will “institute significant changes in its policies and practices to help eliminate gender disparities and foster equal employment opportunity going forward,” said the law firm in a statement.

“Throughout their employment and increasingly in recent years, plaintiffs experienced and witnessed systemic gender discrimination as a result of common employment policies, practices and procedures concerning pay and promotion,” according to the motion for the settlement's approval submitted by Sanford Heisler.

“As a result of these policies and practices, plaintiffs were paid less and promoted more slowly than similarly situated men who worked beside them. The discrimination was especially acute for working mothers, who faced additional discrimination on the basis of caregiver responsibilities,” said the motion.

David Sanford, chairman of Sanford Heisler and lead counsel for the plaintiff class, said in a statement: “It is common knowledge that women in STEM and other related fields face persistent discrimination in pay and promotions. This settlement represents a giant leap forward toward leveling the playing field and can serve as a model of best practices for other technology companies.”

Qualcomm said in a statement that it is “committed to treating its employees fairly and equitably. While we have strong defenses to the claims, we elected to focus on continuing to make meaningful enhancements to our internal programs and processes that drive equity and a diverse and inclusive workforce, which are values that we share and embrace.”

Experts say “STEM” industries — science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields — lag other sectors in addressing gender discrimination.

Such issues “have been around a long time” and STEM companies “probably have further to go than some other industries in that respect,” said Emily S. Borna, a principal at Jackson Lewis P.C. in Atlanta.

While not commenting on the Qualcomm case, Mark I. Schickman, a partner with Freeland Cooper & Foreman L.L.P. in San Francisco, said tech firms “have some catching up to do” not only with respect to gender discrimination, but in race, national origin and age as well.