Senior female scientists sue Salk Institute for discrimination
- Two senior female scientists have launched a sex discrimination lawsuit against the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, Science Magazine reports. Vicki Lundblad and Katherine Jones, both tenured biology professors, claim that decades of sex discrimination occurred at the San Diego, CA, research center.
- In two lawsuits filed in the California Superior Court of San Diego, Lundblad and Jones said the institute disparaged their work for years, denied them promotions, kept them from being considered for grants and generally allowed an "old boys club" culture to thrive — creating a hostile work environment, says Science Magazine. The institute argues that the two biologists' work wasn't on par with fellow scientists, even though both had earned recognition for their research.
- Other scientists, both female and male, defended Lundblad and Jones in Science Magazine, and some back up their claims. A few scientists sided with the institute. Salk Institute President Elizabeth Blackburn has denied the allegations.
No organization is inherently immune to the possibility of sex discrimination. Leaders may set no-tolerance policies around the issue, but unfortunately these are not always taken seriously by everyone in an organization. HR managers should ensure that top executives fully endorse anti-discrimination policies, but they also need to encourage employees who are targets or observers of discrimination to come forth.
Employers should note some aspects in the Salk Institute's case that don't bode well for its defense. The institute reportedly hasn't promoted a woman from associate to full professorship status in more than 17 years, a claim Jones made that can be easily verified if true. Institute officials cited Lundblad's annual salary as well above the median of its full professors, though it said her performance was in the "bottom quartile of her peers."
Additionally, members of an internal panel claim the institute refused to release a 2003 report on its treatment of female faculty. The institute also has 28 tenured male professors on staff, but only five tenured females.
It remains to be seen how thoroughly the matter has been investigated internally. Recent controversies have proven cautionary for organizations that fail to perform adequate investigations; Uber denied sexual harassment at the company until a charge by ex-employee Susan Fowler went public. Employers shouldn't be quick to deny allegations without first following up on and investigating complaints.
Employers should also be up front in explaining what steps they're taking to rid their workplaces of gender discrimination, even if that means overhauling their workplace culture, as Uber ultimately did.