Was that sex bias–or clumsy geek-speak?

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has apparently concluded that some professionals are less articulate than others and deserve a pass when they make sexist comments.

Recent case: Isabelle came to North­­western University from another elite educational institution and was hired at a higher rank than other new professors ordinarily initially receive.

That meant she would be eligible for tenure sooner than other professors—and that there would be more pressure on her to perform. She was expected to secure grants, do cutting-edge research and otherwise prove herself as worthy of tenure and a permanent job. She fell short of those expectations at tenure-review time.

To help, her supervisor wrote a letter urging an extension of her trial period because she was, in his words, “a woman scientist who reproduced” who should be given more time be­­­cause the “demands associated with raising two young boys” made it harder for her to live up to her potential.

After she didn’t get tenure, she sued, alleging that the comments were sexist and amounted to hidden sex discrimination.

The court wasn’t convinced. Perhaps, it speculated, the supervisor just didn’t have a way with words. It noted that “scientists often talk strangely, geekily” and that this might explain why the supervisor divided scientists into reproducers and nonreproducers.

Plus, the court thought that the supervisor, in his awkward way, was essentially trying to help by requesting more time for Isabelle to reach her potential in light of her low productivity.

The court dismissed the case be­­cause there was no other evi­­dence suggesting actual sex dis­­crimi­­na­­tion. (Blasdel v. North­­western Uni­­ver­­sity, No. 11-2075, 7th Cir., 2012)

Final note: The next time an employee accuses a supervisor of making sexist comments, be sure to consider whether there may have been a misunderstanding. If so, correct it and instruct the supervisor on what’s appropriate and what’s not.

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