Science Careers Blog

March 18, 2010

Winning, and Losing, Lawsuits for Sex Discrimination

Another article published in the Chronicle of Higher Education today and written by Mary Ann Mason, co-director of the Berkeley Law Center on Health, Economic & Family Security, looks at how over the years women have won, and lost, lawsuits for tenure denial based on sex discrimination.  

The laws are there: "Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sex, race, national origin, or religion. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act is an amendment to Title VII and prohibits discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions," Mason writes in the article. "What protection those laws offer has been the subject of evolving interpretation by federal courts," however, and it has become "more difficult for a plaintiff in a tenure case to prove discrimination" these last 20 years.

Even if you are successful, the price may just be too high to pay. "In practice, few plaintiffs are reinstated, and most compensation packages do not financially justify the enormous time and expense of the lawsuit and the shame of replaying a failure in the public eye. Colleagues may avoid you, and you may [be] tagged with the odious label of 'troublemaker,' which almost guarantees you will not receive another job offer," Mason writes.

On the positive side, Mason adds, the women who brought up and won lawsuits have contributed to creating a more open tenure procedure where candidates are today better informed of their rights. Still lacking, however, are equal opportunities to mentoring and the creation of a flexible tenure-track.

"Even with a fair, open process and family-responsive policies to help parents (still a distant goal at most universities), there will always be those who suffer the cruel sting of denial. I don't think the answer is abolishing the tenure system... Instead, let's just get on with making a good system a fair system for men and women," concludes Mason.

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