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Axed data scientist sues IBM claiming he was discriminated against as a man

Says he wasn't given leave options available to women colleagues

Michael Stickler, a former IBM data scientist, has sued Big Blue for gender discrimination and retaliation after he complained that he was not being offered the same family leave options available to his women colleagues.

In March 2021, according to the complaint [PDF], Stickler's fiancée's seven-year-old son came to live with the couple and Stickler asked to take a week off using earned vacation time to get to know his soon-to-be stepson. But his supervisor refused to allow him to take vacation then.

The following month, his fiancée "became severely ill and required significant medical attention," to the point that she could no longer care for her child. Stickler was working from home in New York at the time and found it difficult to care for his ailing fiancée and her son, home from school due to COVID-19 restrictions, while managing his work responsibilities.

When he raised the issue to his team lead, he was told he could request time off under IBM’s Personal Time Off program, which provides 10 days of paid time off to deal with personal matters.

Stickler spoke to his supervisor about his need to take time off intermittently and she allowed him to take five days as Personal Time Off. He used those over the course of eight weeks, the complaint alleges, and in June 2021, his fiancée was hospitalized.

So Stickler again needed leave to take his fiancée to the doctor and to care for the child. And when he asked for additional time off, he was granted five more days under IBM's Personal Time Off plan.

Stickler contends his manager could have, but didn't, offer him time off under IBM’s Emergency Paid Care Leave program, which provides up to 20 days of paid leave to care for a child who is home for any COVID-related reason, or under New York's Paid Family Leave program.

His manager, the complaint says, "did not offer [Stickler] paid time off under any of these programs, which are regularly offered to [IBM's] female employees. Instead, she told plaintiff that he could take an unpaid leave of absence for six months to a year, with no guarantee that he would have a job at the end of the leave."

His manager, it's also claimed, misinformed him that he could take leave under the take Family Medical Leave Act but it would have to be 12 consecutive weeks of unpaid leave.

Sticker responded by complaining to his supervisor that he was not being offered the same leave options to care for his family as his women colleagues.

"In particular, [Stickler] pointed out that one of his female colleagues was given at least 20 days of paid intermittent leave to care for her child because her babysitter had quit," the complaint says. "That same colleague was also permitted to work on a flexible schedule to accommodate her family’s needs."

The dreaded PIP

A week after raising that issue, Stickler's supervisor put him on a performance improvement plan, or PIP, that gave him eight weeks to submit a report on the performance of an algorithm in an IBM product. He did so, and was told he would still have to meet with his supervisor on a weekly basis. Thereafter he was assigned to a new project.

The court filing contends Stickler's performance on the new project was satisfactory but he was nonetheless fired on December 15, 2021. Stickler claims he was fired "in direct retaliation for his requests for leave and in retaliation for complaining about the unequal access he, as a male employee, had to IBM’s leave policies."

The complaint, filed last week, seeks relief under the New York State Human Rights Law's for IBM's alleged gender discrimination and retaliation. "The allegations are without merit and IBM will vigorously defend itself," a company spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

Stickler's attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Wendy Musell, managing partner of law offices of Wendy Musell and of counsel for Levy Vinick Burrell Hyams LLP, told The Register in a phone interview that the issue of unequal application of workplace benefits is an issue that has come up recently.

Earlier this month, she said, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued guidance covering discrimination against caregivers.

"One of the areas that EEOC identified," she said, "is situations such as this where you have an alleged differential based on [protected characteristics like] sex or gender or race or national origin. Even if the prevailing law would not cover additional leave, if your policies apply differently for men or women, or by race, those can still become the basis for a successful claim."

Musell said the EEOC guidance is timely and worth considering.

"In an understandable way, it shows how there's an interrelationship between leave policies and discrimination laws," said Musell. "Employers do need to look at these things." ®

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