Just Group has been hit by a sex discrimination lawsuit lodged by a senior marketing manager who alleges her job was downgraded while she was on maternity leave.
Helen Allegos claims Mark McInnes, who came to Just Group after resigning as head of David Jones after a sexual harassment claim in 2010, reduced her role after he recruited new management late last year.
Allegos claims that while she was on leave from her $190,000 a year job as general manager of Just Group’s fast fashion group, McInnes threw her position into doubt by announcing the appointment of former David Jones executives Georgia Chewing as group general manager, internet and marketing, and Diana Young as general manager, advertising.
In her claim, filed in the Federal Court on Friday, Allegos says that before going on leave she had responsibility for marketing the company’s youth-focused chains Portmans, Dotti and Jay Jays.
However, she says as she prepared to return to work in March this year, she was told her role had been reduced to overseeing Jay Jays and Dotti and that she would be required to work four days a week instead of the two days a week agreed before she went on leave.
The Just Group has not filed a response yet but Rose Phillips, group general manager of human resources at the company, says it will “vigorously defend” the claim, which is “opportunistic and without foundation”.
The Just Group says Allegos was offered a position on the same salary with the same title as general manager and looking after the same brands on her return from maternity leave.
Allegos says she did not have access to company email while on leave and was told of the new appointments in an earlier meeting with McInnes on November 23 to discuss her return to work.
She says when she asked McInnes what he knew about her, he replied ”nothing” and during the meeting he said, ”there would be a space for her, but it was not clear what that looked like until the new marketing personnel started work”.
Allegos says the role she was eventually offered ”reduced the number and seniority of the Just Group employees directly reporting to” her, reduced oversight of marketing strategy and cut her management of relationships with advertising agencies.
She claims Just Group downgraded her job because of her sex, her pregnancy and her responsibility to look after her two children and is seeking unspecified compensation – plus a two-month payout if she is found to have been made redundant.
Allegos has not returned to work but Just Group says her role is still open for her.
Just Group points to its employment of a workforce that is 94% female, with the majority of its senior management team being women.
Georgia Chewing, group general manager for internet and marketing told SmartCompany the Just Group “unequivocally supports all women, including the most senior women in our organisation, having families”.
“I myself am a mother of two young children under four – the youngest a five-week-old baby boy,” says Chewing.
“No one understands better than me the juggling that takes, but I know that I have the full support of the company as I take on the challenge and I know I could support Helen through the same process.”
“I have offered Helen a role with the same status, reporting line and salary that she was previously on. Her claims are without foundation and her job today remains open. We hope she will rejoin the team.”
Simon Millman, practice group leader for industrial and employment practice at Slater & Gordon, told SmartCompany cases like this were a “timely reminder” of employer’s obligations to their employees.
“This is something that we see all too often, employers are obliged under the Sex Discrimination legislation to keep available the position held by people before they take parental leave or to use reasonable efforts to make sure a commensurate position is available to people when they return,” he says.
Millman says he cannot comment on this particular case but employers need to be mindful of their potential liability.
“If it looks like a person has come back to a diminished position or a diminished role or responsibility after having taken parental leave, and while it doesn’t fit within the classic connection of what people think sex discrimination is, there is no question that discrimination against someone on the basis of their family responsibilities would be in breach of equal opportunity legislation.”
A first hearing of the case is set for July 23 in Melbourne.