Sunday, December 9, 2018



Open Essay:

Gender Discrimination, Dr. Jennifer Freyd’s Lawsuit, & Recommendations for Universities


Jennifer M. Gómez, Ph.D. 

9 December 2018

There are few emotions as potent as those caused by the pain of watching someone you respect, admire, and care for be discriminated against. Understanding how this discrimination, which feels so isolated and personal, actually is endemic of academia’s dirty little secret of systemic gender discrimination—contributing to the leaky pipeline for women—is more painful still. 

For years as a graduate student in clinical psychology at University of Oregon (2011-17), I bore witness to my graduate advisor, famed trauma researcher, Dr. Jennifer Freyd, being paid tens of thousands of dollars less a year than several male professors in the Department of Psychology. Dr. Freyd and I never talked about her lower salary until she provided documentation to her department that she was being underpaid. Now a few years later, Dr. Freyd has filed a lawsuit against the University of Oregon regarding this gender discrimination.

Independently, I could find no other way to account for this difference in pay besides gender discrimination. Dr. Freyd is a leader in the field of trauma psychology, having essentially created an entire sub-field through her betrayal trauma theoryinstitutional betrayal, and DARVO

Moreover, Dr. Freyd’s 30-year role in academia goes beyond research, as she has successfully mentored over 20 graduate students to various illustrious careers, with almost half being ethnic and/or sexual minorities. Myself included. 

On the one hand, it is not surprising that she mentors diverse graduate students, as work on sexual violence is inextricably linked with inequality. Simultaneously, this should not be overlooked because it means that every facet of her career—research, teaching, and service—is geared towards greater equity for all. 

Why does evidence of her, or any female professor’s, success matter? 

First, because it highlights the epidemic of gender discrimination through wage disparity in academia. 

However, as a Black female graduate student, it did something more. It created a crystal ball of my future, in which I foresaw a life of being perpetually underpaid and undervalued. Given that Black women are on average paid even less than White women, painful realizations plagued my thoughts: 

1. If this could happen to world-renowned Dr. Freyd, what hope could there be for equity for me in academia? 
2. I am afraid I already know what this means for academia itself: continued discrimination for women who stay in the academy; and loss of talent, skills, research and educational advancement, and mentorship from those who choose to leave. 

With Dr. Freyd taking a stand through this lawsuit, I realized I myself was not helpless. Along with another graduate student, I co-wrote an open letter of support to Dr. Freyd, which was signed by approximately 60 graduate students. Excerpt: 

“In addressing gender discrimination, you have indirectly given much to us graduate students. Not the least of which is hope. Hope for a life in which such discrimination is a thing of the past. And hope that we, in our own ways, can fight for equality in all forms for ourselves and our colleagues.” 

Therefore, even though women's perspectives are so often invalidated, I am still hopeful. 

Hopeful that regardless of the outcome of Dr. Freyd’s lawsuit, the underbelly of academia has been exposed. This lawsuit highlights University of Oregon as a shameful example of the rampant gender discrimination currently in practice across universities, including explaining away women’s lower pay through grant funding, retention efforts, and tokenism. Unsurprisingly, grant funding and retention efforts themselves are affected by sexism. Tokenism is the argument that “since one woman makes more money and/or receives federal funding for research, sexism does not affect any woman.” It relies on the same faulty reasoning from a few years ago regarding racism in this country: We live in a post-racial society now that Obama is President. 

I can only hope that academics who, by definition, engage in complex thought for a living—and also ostensibly care about equality—will demand more from their universities: 

1) Engage in effective leadership from university Presidents and other upper-level administrators in identifying and addressing the many instantiations of gender inequity, thus elevating their universities’ excellence
2) Avoid strategies that make it impossible to address inequity (e.g., looking at full professors’ salaries without assessing bias in promotion and tenure; characterizing professors’ jobs in research, teaching, and service as so unique that even faculty in the same department are never comparable)
3) Conduct self-assessments at the university, college, and departmental levels
4) Produce research on the outcomes (e.g., wage disparity) of gender and other forms of discrimination in academia
5) Use the above research to educate lawyers and the general public
6) Offer emotional support to colleagues who are fighting for their right to not be discriminated against by their universities
7)  Be an ally to these colleagues by publicly demonstrating support: from open letters, petitions, and op-eds to simply speaking up when you witness problems (e.g., in meetings)

And finally: 

8) Remember that your actions—and inactions—are speaking volumes to the next generation of prospective professors. 

As members of universities with varying levels of institutional and societal power, academics have the choice to remain in collusion with their universities’ institutional betrayal of gender discrimination. However, additionally exists the opportunity to use institutional courage to create universities that are leaders in equality, thus harnessing diverse talent to produce groundbreaking scholarship. 

Leaders: So no future students have to silently bear witness to their graduate advisor being subjected to discrimination. 

Leaders: So we correct the leaky pipeline and replace it with diverse experts who contribute to the fountain of knowledge, education, and influence that academia truly can be. 

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Dr. Jennifer M. Gómez is a postdoctoral fellow in the Postdoctoral to Faculty Transition Program at Wayne State University in Detroit. Her research focuses on cultural betrayal trauma theory, which she developed to understand the role of systemic discrimination in outcomes of violence exposure. http://jmgomez.org