Wednesday, January 14, 2009

SUNY Stony Brook Settles Sex Discrimination Case

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that SUNY Stony Brook has settled, for undisclosed terms, a Title VII lawsuit filed by a female former physics post-doc. The plaintiff, Sherry Towers, had alleged that the university decided not to extend her fellowship contract after and in retaliation for her complaints about sex discrimination by her supervisor, John Hobbs. According to the AAUW Legal Advocacy Fund (which supported Towers's case), Hobbs told Towers she was not allowed to take maternity leave if she wanted to receive future recommendations from him. He then insisted that she return to work within days of giving birth. And while Towers' workload was reduced to 30-35 hours a week, she received a 40% pay reduction, even though other post docs who worked similar hours received full salary.

As Towers herself suggested to the Chronicle, her case supports the argument that women aren't underrepresented in science fields like physics because of lack of interest and ability. The gender gap derives not only from workplace norms, like nonaccommodation of pregnancy, that systematically advantage men, but also hostility to women who seek to challenge those norms with more inclusive policies. Apparently, Towers was a talented and accomplished physicist who discovered evidence of a new particle (OK, I admit I have no idea what that means, but it sounds impressive to me!). Now she is getting her license to teach high school physics. If she had had the support of her institution, what else would she have been able to accomplish?