Publicis settled an unrelated sex discrimination lawsuit for $3 million two months before Kevin Roberts' remarks

Kevin roberts saatchiKevin RobertsKevin Roberts.

Publicis Groupe paid nearly $3 million to settle a class-action gender discrimination lawsuit at its MSLGroup PR shop in New York in May 2016.

The settlement is, perhaps, part of the reason why Publicis reacted so quickly to remarks by Kevin Roberts, Publicis’ head coach, about whether there was gender parity in the ad industry. Roberts told Business Insider, “the fucking debate is all over. … I can’t talk about sexual discrimination because we’ve never had that problem, thank goodness.”

The remarks triggered a negative reaction from staff inside Publicis, and Roberts was immediately placed on a “leave of absence” by the company. “Promoting gender equality starts at the top and the Groupe will not tolerate anyone speaking for our organisation who does not value the importance of inclusion,” the company said.

The discrimination suit had nothing to do with Roberts, who in addition to his role as head coach at Publicis is the chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi.

The suit was a rare victory for women who believe they are underpaid or underpromoted in the PR business.

The plaintiffs in the case alleged that 70% of Publicis’ 45,000 PR executives worldwide are women, but females occupied only 15% of the “leadership” positions. The case was filed in 2011 and covered several years of allegations.

Female employees covered by the suit received $2.875 million between them, with $197,500 going to 23 named plaintiffs, plus $1,000 for every pregnant employee in recognition that they should have been given an additional week of paid maternity leave. MSLGroup’s North America president, Jim Tsokanos, stepped down after the suit was filed and he was replaced by Renee Wilson, MSL’s then-chief client officer.

Publicis did not immediately return a request for comment on whether the settlement had anything to do with the suspension of Roberts.

An internal email sent to Publicis employees condemned Roberts’ remarks:

“Kevin’s remarks are wholly inconsistent with the beliefs and values of Publicis Groupe, and they are inconsistent with my own personal beliefs and values. Viva la Difference is not a line; it is who we are and how we behave. I am very proud of being part of the Groupe that is doing so much on gender equality but I acknowledge that we, our industry and business at large are not where we need to be or where we aspire to be.”

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