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A third gender discrimination lawsuit has been filed against the Salk Institute.

Rex Boggs (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Salk Institute hit with discrimination lawsuit by third female scientist

Following two gender discrimination lawsuits filed last week, a third senior female professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies has similarly sued the storied independent institute in San Diego, California.

Beverly Emerson, 65, a molecular biologist who has worked at Salk since 1986, filed a lawsuit seeking unspecified damages on 18 July in California Superior Court in San Diego. In it, she alleges that she and two other senior female professors at Salk, despite their accomplishments and accolades, have endured slower promotion rates, lower pay, and underfunding of their labs relative to their male colleagues. As in the suits filed by Salk professors Katherine Jones and Vicki Lundblad, Emerson also alleges that all three women have been shut out of opportunities for lucrative grants and denied leadership opportunities within Salk, a “hostile environment in which they are undermined, disrespected, disparaged, and treated unequally.”

“What is worse,” Emerson alleges, Salk administration and board of trustees, including former President William Brody and current President Elizabeth Blackburn, a biology Nobel laureate, “have known about this discrimination, yet done absolutely nothing to stop it or right the wrongs perpetrated against its … talented and decorated female Full Professors.”

Unlike the two other lawsuits, Emerson's goes into some detail on a still undisclosed 2003 internal Salk report looking at the status of women at the seaside research center and a more recent similar analysis, commissioned in 2016 by Blackburn soon after she took over. Emerson alleges that the “alarming” findings of the 2003 report were “completely ignored” by the administration and the board of trustees. She claims that the report found that “female Assistant Professors had to work an average of 1.2 years longer than male Assistant Professors (6.4 years vs. 5.6 years) to be promoted to Associate Professor, and female Associate Professors had to work an average of 1.7 years longer than male Associate Professors (5.3 years vs. 3.6 years) to be promoted to Full Professor.”

The 2016 report describes “a culture in which a small subset of faculty [i.e., senior male Professors] play a disproportionately large role in academic governance,” the complaint states. This and its other findings were similarly not acted on, Emerson alleges.  

Salk, which has vehemently denied Jones and Lundlad’s charges, responded today to Emerson’s suit with a statement by Blackburn that said in part:

“I would never preside over an organization that in any way condones, openly or otherwise, the marginalizing of female scientists.  We are saddened and deeply disappointed by the misrepresentations made by our colleagues in these claims, which we will defend against vigorously.  Underscoring their lack of merit, the characterizations already have been debunked by other current female professors at the institute who have flourished here.” 

Salk then pointed to the same supportive statement it issued on behalf of plant biologist Joanne Chory last week in response to the first suits, in which she says that for 28 years Salk has allowed her to “flourish” as a scientist. (Chory, the fourth tenured female professor on Salk’s scientific staff, is officially employed by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.)

Emerson, who was elected a Fellow of AAAS (the publisher of Science) in 2015, alleges that Salk’s opaque recruitment, hiring, promotion, compensation, and other practices have allowed continued gender discrimination by the administration. The institute, she charges, fails to conduct annual faculty performance reviews; has no written policy defining eligibility for grants from private donors, which are not open to all faculty; and has no clear policies for the distribution of laboratory space or for faculty recruitment. The latter, she alleges, “[has allowed] the Salk Institute to hire 3.5 male faculty for every one female faculty member in the past six years.”

Beverly Emerson, pictured at left, in a 2013 fundraising brochure. She alleges the Salk Institute uses female faculty as "donor bait."

Salk Institute

Emerson’s complaint states that in 2012, Brody summoned Emerson into his office and stated that he did not know how much longer Salk could support her laboratory. At the time, she claims, she had two National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants and more NIH funding per staff member than many male full professor. Since then, she alleges, she has “been forced to successively fire staff, ultimately reducing her laboratory size by 75% to two staff members (not counting herself).” (The complaint also states that between 2012 and 2014, according to Internal Revenue Service filings, Brody’s compensation grew by 67%, to $1,623,785.)   

Emerson’s suit says that her contract with Salk ends at the end of this year. The Salk has 28 tenured male faculty members. It has four tenured women, for now, not including Blackburn. Last month, Salk announced the hiring of a fifth tenured woman to the scientific staff. Yale University immunologist Susan Kaech is expected to join the faculty next February or March.