Former MSLGroup China CEO files gender discrimination suit against Publicis

Faith Brewitt, former head of Greater China for MSLGroup, has filed a lawsuit saying she was denied the time and basic tools to do her job.

SHANGHAI: Faith Brewitt, former CEO of Greater China for Publicis Groupe’s MSLGroup, has filed a lawsut with the Shanghai Arbitration Bureau claiming she was exposed to constant and pervasive discrimination during her brief time with the company, and was ultimately fired due to gender bias.

A translated summary of the suit, provided by Brewitt's attorney, Gregory Louvel of Leaf Legal in Beijing, briefly laid out the conditions she faced after starting her job.

"Ms. Faith Brewitt started work on June 14 in Shanghai. With no office, no computer, no admin support—nothing was done to prepare for her arrival because the regional HR person Nadia Pan did not warn anyone of her arrival," said the summary.

"On December 9, MSL discharged Ms. Faith Brewitt without giving any solid reason," the summary continues. "Such termination is unfair and grossly illegal according to Chinese law. The way Ms. Brewitt was treated (considering the way other women senior executive in MSL have been treated in the past) raises serious questions about gender discrimination within MSL."

Brewitt expanded on her accusations in a telephone interview, saying she was treated differently than her male counterparts from her first day with the company, kept out of high-level meetings and denied basic tools of the job.

"I didn’t have an office, I didn’t have a computer for two months, I didn’t get access to the server for three months, I was blocked on all global calls for four months by the regional president, a man who was clearly threatened," she said. "I didn’t have a personal assistant—all the other guys had a PA on day one."

"Every aspect of my role was not taken seriously," she said.

Though Brewitt, 46, declined to name the regional president in the interview, the legal summary states that Glenn Osaki, president of Asia, Shanghai, and China, was "added to her reporting list ... against her wishes" when she was negotiating the details of her role. 

Brewitt said she was told in December that she was being dismissed because she "wasn’t bringing in the dollars," she said. But she disputes that claim, saying that "China was holding its numbers during my six months on the job." (Overall, Paris-based Publicis’ revenue in Asia was flat during the third quarter.)

In an emailed statement, MSLGroup denied that Brewitt’s dismissal had anything to do with gender and defended the company’s track record of female leadership.

"While it is our company policy to not discuss the specific details of an employee’s departure from the firm, we strongly disagree with Ms. Brewitt's characterization of the circumstances and will vigorously defend ourselves against her allegations," it said. "MSLGroup remains fully committed to the fair, equal, and respectful treatment of all of our employees around the world and maintaining workplace practices that are lawful, correct, and nondiscriminatory."

Unlike in the U.S., lawsuits in China remain sealed until a judgment is rendered.

According to Brewitt, the company began courting her in late 2015, when MSLGroup global CEO Guillaume Herbette asked her to help lead the pitch for Huawei’s global PR account. Brewitt had worked with the Chinese tech giant as a regional tech director at FleishmanHillard in the early 2000s. (Huawei awarded the business to Ogilvy PR and H+K Strategies in January 2016). Early last year, Herbette brought Brewitt to Paris for a "full-court press," she said, and eventually offered her the newly created role of Greater China CEO, overseeing four offices in Mainland China plus Hong Kong and Taipei. Brewitt, who had been running her own cause-marketing firm, moved from Beijing to Shanghai to take the job. 

Her mission, she says, was to help drive the Publicis Power of One philosophy by working with other CEOs from Publicis Communications companies (Leo Burnett, Publicis, Saatchi & Saatchi, and others) to integrate their offerings. "What business do you have today, how do we make that bigger by putting in the comms element, how do we pitch together?"

But when Brewitt arrived in Shanghai, she says, she was immediately made to feel unwelcome, and within three months, other men were being recruited to assume her responsibilities. "A man was hired for Beijing and another man was promoted in Hong Kong and I was told ‘not to worry’ about Taiwan," she said. "Yet internally and externally, my title and role did not change." 

Though she complained about her situation to Herbette, he was unable or unwiling to step in, she said. "The regional president just became my de facto [boss]. I didn’t think he was my boss when I joined, then he became the biggest block. He would say that he had spoken to both men and this is how they feel." 

The difference in the way the company treated her compared to comparable male executives was blatant, she said, and convinced her that gender was the cause of her perceived mistreatment.

"My male counterparts in the same level positions, in and outside of China, were consistently treated differently and afforded more resources, time, and respect," she said. As an example, she pointed to U.S. CEO Ron Guirguis, who was hired in September 2015 "to right a sinking ship, and he’s managed to turn things around a little," she said. "But it took him 16 months, the first three of which he spent on a ‘learning and listening’ tour, plus lots of layoffs, senior departures, client losses, and significant structural changes to do it."

"I was only given six months – three, actually, if you include my own ‘learning and listening’ tour, which is not enough time to do anything, especially when you are trying to preserve what works well and fix what doesn’t," she said. Brewitt says she was offered no severance upon her dismissal, and her attorney tried to contact Publicis unsuccessfully for six weeks before filing suit.  

This is not the first time in recent years that Publicis and MSLGroup have been accused of gender bias. In 2015, the holding company settled a class action discrimination suit brought by more than 100 female employees who claimed they were denied equal pay, promotions, and other opportunities. The suit, which the company settled for $3 million without admitting wrongdoing, also claimed that former MSLGroup U.S. President Jim Tsokanos frequently used sexist language around the office.

Last year, Saatchi & Saatchi chairman Kevin Roberts stepped down after proclaiming in an interview with Business Insider that "the fucking debate" about gender equality was "all over," and implying that women weren’t traditionally ambitious. 

In the emailed statement, MSLGroup touted its "exemplary track record of gender equality in Greater China," saying that 25 of its 33 leadership positions were held by women. The company also pointed to its work "nurturing and growing women leaders around the globe through initiatives such as Viva Women and our financial support of the Women’s Forum, which promotes gender equality and tackles societal challenges from a women’s perspective." 

In addition to FleishmanHillard, Brewitt has worked for Edelman and H&K Strategies. She has been based in China and Asia for the past 23 years.

This story first appeared on campaignlive.com.

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