On March 23, the New York Times reported on a sexual harassment and sex discrimination lawsuit filed recently by Enrichetta Ravina against Columbia University. Ms. Ravina, an assistant professor, worked with another professor at the university to obtain data as part of her research which she hoped would eventually lead to tenure. The professor had a relationship with the company that held the data and used that relationship to help Ms. Ravina get the data she needed. Because of that relationship, the professor could also influence the company to revoke Ms. Ravina’s access to the data. Among other things, Ms. Ravina says that when her research got to where taking the data away would have damaged the project, the professor harassed her and interfered with her research. According to the lawsuit, the more Ms. Ravina rebuked the professor’s sexual advances, the worse his behavior became. For its part, Ms. Ravina alleges Columbia ignored and marginalized her complaints, telling her to forget about the research and move on and comparing her situation to a soap opera.
The lawsuit—44 pages long—is an interesting read for legal buffs. Rather than diving directly into the facts, Ms. Ravina’s lawyers devoted the first 4 pages of the lawsuit to an introduction which includes a quote taken off a video from Columbia’s website wherein the Senior Vice Dean talks about making the promise of diversity a reality at the university. In reality, the lawsuit alleges, “Columbia simply does not support or promote its female faculty the way it does the men.” The introductory paragraphs also state that on more than one occasion, several of Ms. Ravina’s colleagues have petitioned the university out of concern for Ms. Ravina’s situation.
Ms. Ravina makes several claims under the New York City Human Rights Law, Title VII (a federal law that prohibits discrimination and harassment in employment), and Title IX (a federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance).
The lawsuit itself conveys Ms. Ravina’s exasperation with the situation and makes clear she sued as a last resort: “With every other course of action exhausted and with Columbia’s unlawful discrimination and retaliation meaning she soon will be unlawfully denied tenure and wrongfully terminated, Ms. Ravina hopes to finally get meaningful relief by bringing this action.” Ms. Ravina echoed that same emotion to the Times, saying, “I never really wanted to be in this position, but this was the only thing I could do,” adding she “felt really betrayed.”
Ms. Ravina’s feelings about being a plaintiff in a lawsuit are very common. There is a stigma attached to being a plaintiff in a lawsuit, especially when the lawsuit alleges sexual harassment or sex discrimination. Plaintiffs like Ms. Ravina are sometimes seen as trying to “get rich quick.” Bringing a lawsuit, which could last years, is not a very good way to get rich quick. Ms. Ravina will face critics, including the courts, every step of the way. But it is important that people like Ms. Ravina take a stand to end unlawful workplace behavior. It will be interesting to see how things unfold.
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