Woman Biologist's Success

From The Scientist Issue: July 25, 1994
Title: Woman Biologist's Success In A Discrimination Suit Adds Weight To Findings On Science And Parenthood

Judge's ruling against Vassar College supports studies showing that wives and mothers can also be productive scientists

For a century, female researchers have been disputing the notion that marriage and motherhood are impediments to serious scientific work. Over the past several decades, sociological studies have emerged to bolster their position.

These studies have found that married women researchers publish just as much as--or more than--their unmarried counterparts, and that women with children likewise show no deficit when it comes to research productivity.

Now, a judge's decision in a discrimination case puts the strength of a legal ruling behind this assertion.

A recent court decision that Vassar College discriminated against a married female biology faculty member by not granting her tenure and paying her less than the men and one unmarried woman in her department is, according to observers of academic policies, a warning to schools to be more vigilant in their enforcement of nondiscrimination policies, particularly as they apply to women.

In a ruling handed down May 16, Constance Baker Motley, United States district justice for the Southern District of New York, found in favor of Cynthia J. Fisher, a former assistant professor of biology, who was denied tenure in 1985. Motley noted in her decision that the action by the Poughkeepsie, N.Y., college "reflects the acceptance of a stereotype and bias: that a married woman with an active and ongoing family life cannot be a productive scientist and, therefore, is not one despite much evidence to the contrary."

Vassar--which was exclusively a women's college until 1969 and is the alma mater of former National Institutes of Health director Bernadine Healy, among others--filed an appeal of the ruling on July 13.

Vassar officials contended in a statement that the judge's finding of bias "paints a picture of the College that we believe to be profoundly distorted and inaccurate" and that "to the best of our knowledge, no judge has ever made such definitive pronouncements" on the qualifications for tenure of a plaintiff as compared with his or her colleagues. The college maintains that the ruling threatens the independence of all academic tenure-review boards.

Sheldon E. Steinbach, general counsel for the Washington, D.C.-based American Council on Education, says universities nationwide should heed the decision's "cautionary note that the traditionalist view of women went out with the washboard." The case, he says, sends "a warning shot across the bow" that "those kinds of views will find the department and the institution guilty of discrimination."

"Universities and colleges have to pay attention to women, as they have to pay attention to racial minorities," says Fisher's lawyer, Eleanor Jackson Piel. "They have to think about whether or not a woman is not being promoted because she's married and has children.

"It's a little different from the glass ceiling," says Piel, referring to the widely held perception that there is an unstated, arbitrary barrier to women's advancement to science's highest ranks, "but, in effect, it is a ceiling."

Family Ties

Virginia B. Smith, president of Vassar at the time of the tenure denial, explained that decision in a 1985 letter to Fisher saying that, in Fisher's dossier, "there did not appear that combination of strength in teaching and in scholarship requisite for promotion."

Because of her record of publications and grants, Fisher says, "I had indisputable claims to being a good scholar. I knew the reasons given [for denial of tenure] were not the real reasons." She says she sued because "I decided, with my husband's support, that if anyone could win a case, I could."

In addition, Fisher says, she felt she was fighting not only for herself, but also for other women whose husbands' careers tie them to specific locations and who therefore often must settle for the temporary or nontenured positions they are offered in lieu of tenured positions they may deserve.

"Geographically trapped women with children were repeatedly being victimized," she says.

Fisher, who was 53 years old when she filed her suit in 1985, came to Vassar in 1977 after teaching part-time at Marist College, also in Poughkeepsie. Prior to taking the post at Marist, Fisher--who had received her Ph.D. in 1963 from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., and then did postdoctoral work there--had taken eight years off to raise two daughters and deal with illnesses in her family.

Fisher says Vassar's biology department "had me pegged as [a former] housewife," referring in college committee meetings to her hiatus from work although it had occurred before she joined the faculty. "It's not like I asked for special treatment" while at Vassar, she says, "but that's what stereotyping's all about."

Before filing her federal suit, Fisher had gone through an appellate procedure at Vassar and then filed a complaint with the New York State Human Rights Commission; both had found in favor of the college.

Being unsympathetic to those who take time to raise a family "puts women into a different class," says Houston attorney Thomas H. Padgett, Jr., who has represented plaintiffs in sex-discrimination cases. "Is it discrimination? I think it is. If men have `down time,' [administrators] make excuses for it. It's not unusual for a professor, especially a research scientist,to have that period when they're not accelerating," particularly when setting up a lab.

Says Mary Frank Fox, an associate professor of sociology at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, one of several researchers whose studies have shown that marriage and motherhood do not adversely affect women's research productivity (see story on page 5): "It isn't that family status has no effect [on women]; it may have a number of consequences, but it isn't a negative factor in their research productivity, and that's what [tenure committees] are supposed to be evaluating. If it's not having consequences in research productivity, why is it relevant?

"A predetermined negative judgment can be delivered on anyone--all you need to have is the means and the will to do so."

Judgment For The Plaintiff

Motley found that the discrepancy in Fisher's pay as compared with that of the men and single woman--Fisher alleged that she was hired at the minimum salary, while those with equal or lesser experience were hired at rates ranging from $150 to $6,750 over the minimum--constituted salary discrimination because of her marital status. She also ruled that the fact that Fisher was older than those who received tenure represented age discrimination.

On June 30, the judge ordered Vassar to give Fisher approximately $530,000 in back wages plus contribute nearly $80,000 into a retirement program and roughly $17,000 into Social Security for her. Motley also ordered that Fisher be reinstated as an associate professor with tenure for two years, to be followed by a review for retention and promotion to full professor.

The judge agreed with Fisher's allegation that her qualifications were at least equal, and in many cases superior, to those of the men and the unmarried woman in her department who received tenure. Evidence presented by Fisher to support her claim included number of citations to articles published in prestigious journals, grants received, papers given at professional meetings, and high scores on teaching evaluations. The judge found that the department had denigrated Fisher's record while bolstering those of the men and single woman.

Fisher says that negative tenure decisions were de rigueur for married women biologists at Vassar, who were given only one-year appointments or used as part-time faculty. "They were there, just not in permanent positions," she says.

Taking an appointment outside the tenure track sounds "the death knell in terms of your [future] employability," says Houston attorney Padgett. "We're seeing more of it as universities get smarter in terms of how to hide discrimination. What happened at Vassar was, the statistics caught up with them."

But Vassar maintains that Fisher was denied tenure simply because she did not meet its standards. "We're standing by the decision made by the faculty based on her qualifications," says John M. Don-oghue, an attorney for the college.

Statistical Evidence

Fisher--whose husband, Armen Fisher, an associate professor of statistics at Union College Poughkeepsie/Kingston Center in New York, analyzed the figures she presented as evidence in her case--argued that in the 30 years preceding her 1985 tenure review, no married woman had received tenure at Vassar in the hard sciences, which she defined as mathematics, physics, chemistry, geology, biology, and computer science. The judge agreed with this claim.

Vassar contended that psychology should have been counted among the hard sciences and that a married female psychologist had obtained tenure prior to 1985; that examining only women granted tenure from 1955 to 1985 unfairly skewed the statistics because most women scientists in that period were unmarried; and that the Fishers did not use valid information to determine who was married and who was not.

Donoghue says the Fishers' marital-status figures were "designed to reach an end. If you can manipulate statistics to the extent that they did--to craft the process down to redefine what the hard sciences are, and to redefine what a faculty member is--you can isolate the case down to one person in a particular year."

The college's attorney says the decision hurts academia because "the judge has established herself as a super- tenure-reviewer." With this precedent, he says, "every single tenure decision is subject to judicial second- guessing."

But Anne Bryant, executive director of the Washington, D.C.- based American Association of University Women (AAUW), says that relief through the courts is the only remedy when biased tenure decisions are made by committees working in secret. "It is the institution's responsibility to make sure that its policies are fair," she says. She adds that, despite the risks involved in making historically closed tenure deliberations public by bringing them out in court, such action "will probably give greater rewards than keeping them closed and allowing discrimination to happen."

"In my department, married women were the ones who were victimized," Fisher says. "The reason is [that tenure committees] are never held accountable for what they do; they're able to hide behind confidentiality and this myth of academic freedom."

A former colleague of Fisher's in Vassar's biology department, a woman hired in 1977 and terminated in 1983, wrote a letter supporting Fisher to the school's appeals committee in 1985; part of the letter was read into the court record at Fisher's trial. The woman, who while at Vassar married a man with eight children, wrote: ". . . my sense of being discriminated against on this basis was so strong that, when I discovered that I was pregnant in 1981, I voluntarily and secretly had an abortion. I knew they would terminate me at the next contract renewal if I had the baby." Judge Motley found this perception to be additional anecdotal evidence of a pattern of discrimination by Vassar against married women and criticized the college for not investigating the letter-writer's allegations.

Counters Donoghue, Vassar's attorney: "Suppose it was true-- what does the fact that a third party had an abortion have to do with Mrs. Fisher's competence to teach?"

Another View Of Vassar

The week after the judge's decision was announced, four tenured women sci- entists at Vassar, all married with children, circulated to several newspapers and journals a letter declaring that they have found the college to be a supportive environment.

"Vassar has policies and practices enabling faculty to pursue successful professional careers while leading full family lives," wrote the women--an astronomer, a physicist, a chemist, and a computer scientist, all of whom received tenure after 1985. "These include maternity and parental leave, subsidized childcare on and off campus, and the option of extending the time to prepare for tenure review in order to accommodate family obligations."

Cindy Schwarz, an associate professor of physics at Vassar and a coauthor of the letter, says she felt compelled to demonstrate that "there have been women at Vassar who have had quite contrary experiences to what Cynthia Fisher says she had." Schwarz wrote in the letter that "When my first child was only a few months old, I was able to carry my full teaching load and conduct off-campus research at Brookhaven National Laboratory in great part because the department always accommodated my schedule."

"That was the most hellish time of my life, but I had to do what I had to do," says Schwarz, who stayed away from her family for four days every other week while conducting experiments at the Brookhaven lab on Long Island, N.Y. "That's the choice I made." Schwarz speculates that Fisher's predicament stems not from her family status, but from her decision to stay home: "Anybody who chooses to be out of the field--for whatever reason--would be at a huge disadvantage."

AAUW's Bryant says it's significant that all four of the letter's signatories received tenure after Fisher filed her suit. "Cynthia Fisher may have given those women a gift of fair employment," she says.

Schwarz says she doubts tenure was granted to her and her colleagues solely because of Fisher's suit. "Believe me, I worked very hard for those seven years" before tenure review, she says. "I knew exactly what I had to do."

Fisher, for her part, found herself in the position of having to look for things to do after leaving Vassar in 1986. That year, she took a half-time, adjunct position at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., where, she recalls, "I turned a dirty little closet into a tissue- culture lab." Her contract at Bard was not renewed.

In 1988, Fisher decided to temporarily forgo science. "Being 53 and having a lawsuit against Vassar is no way to get you a job," she says. "If you're a scientist, you really need to have an institution behind you; it's not possible to do it in your basement these days." She entered a master's degree program in social work at Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y., graduating in 1991. Since then, she has been a social worker.

Fisher says she has no reservations about returning to Vassar, noting that her former dean and department head have since left the college, as have the president and affirmative-action officer at the time of her tenure review. "I have had very good working relationships with my colleagues there," she says. "I just don't choose my best friends there."

(The Scientist, Vol:8, #15, pg.1, July 25, 1994)
(Copyright, The Scientist, Inc.)

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