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A Third Lawsuit Filed By A Female Professor Against Salk

— July 25, 2017

A Third Lawsuit Filed By A Female Professor Against Salk

A third female professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studios in San Diego, a center for biology founded 57 years ago by polio vaccine pioneer Jonas Salk, has sued the institute, alleging a “hostile environment in which they are undermined, disrespected, disparaged, and treated unequally”.  The latest lawsuit was filed by molecular biologist Dr. Beverly Emerson, 65, who has worked at the Institute since 1986.  She claims, “For over half a century, the Salk Institute has operated as a antiquated boys’ club, systematically undermining and marginalizing its three female Full Professors” and adds,  “What is worse,” [Salk administration and board of trustees] 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.”

Beverly Emerson, Image Courtesy of The Salk Institute

The lawsuit claims that female professors lucky enough to take on full professor roles have been met with exclusion from opportunities for high-value grants, denial of leadership and professional advancement opportunities, slower promotion rates, lower pay, an unequal distribution of resources, and a hostile environment.  Emerson’s suit follows Dr. Katherine Jones’ and Dr. Vicki Lundblad’s filed on July 11th, seeking unspecified compensation. Lundblad, 64, is a cell biologist who has been with Salk since 2003. She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2015. Jones, 62, is an expert in transcription elongation and has been at Salk since 1986.

On 14 July, Salk released a statement saying Lundblad and Jones “have been treated generously by the Institute, including relative to their male peers. … Each scientist’s lucrative compensation package is consistent with well-recognized metrics that have been applied to all Salk faculty.”  However, the newest lawsuit lends further evidence of inequality.

Female professors have had to work longer than their male counterparts to receive full professorship at Salk, according to a report filed in 2003 — an average of 1.2 years long to attain the title of Associate Professor and 1.7 longer to be promoted to Full Professor.  Emerson is also claiming California’s anti-discrimination laws and wage equality statutes have been violated.  She is asking for monetary damages, “including loss of wages and benefits”.  She is also seeking an injunction barring Salk from further violating state labor laws.

“The fact that an institution would treat its own distinguished faculty in this way is very disturbing,” says Nancy Hopkins, professor emerita of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge.  She adds that the current allegations “are the kinds of things that women experienced 20 years ago when we did the MIT report.”

A Third Lawsuit Filed By A Female Professor Against Salk
Katherine Jones (left) and Vicki Lundblad (right), Image Courtesy of Alejandro Tamayo/San Diego Union-Tribune via ZUMA Wire

Salk President Elizabeth Blackburn said in a statement that she is “saddened that an institute as justly revered as the Salk Institute is being misrepresented by accusations of gender discrimination. I would never preside over an institute that in any way condoned, openly or otherwise, the marginalizing of female scientists.” However, in a statement, Lundblad alleged, “Even Dr. Blackburn, one of the most accomplished scientists in the world, has not been immune to judgmental comments about her abilities to function as Salk’s president.”  

Jones has said that Salk also uses female faculty members and scientists as “donor-bait” by picturing them on mailers “in an effort to make it appear that Salk recognizes the importance of retaining and promoting and paying women equally.”  It’s all part of a false facade.  

The lawsuit is “entirely appropriate,” Emerson says, adding that “unbiased data show that the situation at Salk for senior women faculty is grim on many levels, resulting in a slow death even for the strongest individuals.”


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