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Top Female Scientists Cite “Elite Boy’s Club” as Reason Behind Discrimination Lawsuits at the Salk Institute

The Salk Institute for Biological Research may be distinguished among the many biotech companies and research institutions in northern San Diego, but this self-proclaimed utopia is facing backlash after gender discrimination lawsuits were filed recently by three of the four women professors among the institute’s 32 total.

Beverly Emerson, one of the individuals who filed the lawsuit, had worked at the Institute for 31 years and had new ideas for understanding tumor growth, but her contract was about to expire. To renew it, the Institute required that Emerson have enough grant money to cover half her salary. She didn’t. While she had been working on new funding initiatives with the Salk’s president, they had other plans. She was dismissed from her position. 

Emerson claimed that the senior faculty restricted their access to funds, laboratory resources, and influence. The lawsuit claims that certain male faculty members ran the Institute and received many private donations while women were forced to fire their staff due to cuts in funding, and kept out of positions of power.

At the time of the lawsuit, women made up 16 percent of the Salk’s senior faculty and32 percent of assistant professors. What makes these statistics especially striking is the fact that women earn more than half of the doctoral degrees in the biological sciences. This isn’t unique to the Salk Institute either. Women make up a similar share of senior faculty at other research institutions. Women also only make up 28 percent of tenured biology professors at elite public universities.

Women who have worked at the Salk over the past 30 years have claimed that discrimination has always been there. When Kathy Jones, a fellow professor, started at the Institute, she says she was approached by another female colleague who warned her of her future there.

Jones recalled her saying, “You need to understand that at the Salk Institute, women do not get the same pay as men and they do not get anywhere near the same resources.” This was in the 1980s, and the women entering the workforce believed that things would change in ten years as the older, out-of-touch faculty retired or died. However, this was not the case.

Pamela Mellon, a more experienced faculty member than Jones or Emerson at the time, also noticed the huge difference between male and female faculty. She said women “were secondary. They weren’t consulted. They weren’t invited into joint grants. They weren’t in the leadership. I could see even then that I was not going to be in the leadership. That was not going to happen because of my gender.”

Salk responded to the lawsuits claiming that the women had always been in the bottom quartile of their peers and that they hadn’t published enough papers in prestigious scientific publications.

Many came to their defense. Carol Greider, a Nobel Prize winner, wrote, “The next generation of scientists is watching and many are choosing not to pursue a career in science, where they feel they will not have support.”

Hopefully the Institute is listening.

Featured Image by Stan Leary on Flickr.

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