A physics professor reads some studies indicating that female students who have other female students as lab partners perform better than female students paired with male students. So he makes it a policy to team up the females in his classroom with other females whenever possible.
An admirable strategy for battling the male chauvinism that supposedly dominates the sciences and discourages women from majorig in STEM, right?
No, actually it's an admirable strategy for becoming a defendant in a Title IX gender-discrimination lawsuit.
And that's exactly the pickle that Larry Bortner, physics professor at the University of Cincinnati, finds himself in. He's now being accused vy a female pre-med student who wanted a male lab partner of actually trying to keep women out of male-dominated STEM.
Here's the story, from Inside Higher Education:
Casey Helmicki, a rising junior, says a teaching assistant instructed her to work in groups with solely female students on the first day of a physics lab. The teaching assistant told her, “Women shouldn’t be working with men in science,” according to the lawsuit.
Helmicki says she approached Larry Bortner, professor of physics, to air her concerns after class. Bortner allegedly defended the teaching assistant’s actions and said it was the physics department’s policy to separate the sexes in the classroom.
Here's what poor Bortner did:
“Physicists are predominantly male,” Bortner wrote in a Sept. 9 email to Jyl Shaffer, the university's Title IX coordinator at the time. “To change this, we try to make the educational environment open to females. Studies have shown that females do better in small lab groups (three or four) that contain more females than males than more males than females. I train instructors who teach the labs and have told them to rearrange groups if there is one female with three males; if at all possible have all-female groups.”…
Shaffer offered Bortner encouragement in two emails on Sept. 11 that are quoted in the suit. “The fact that you are being so intentional in how students learn is fantastic,” she wrote in the first email. “From what you have told me there is nothing inherently inequitable about the method you're using to improve learning experiences,” she wrote in the second email.
In a Sept. 27 email, Shaffer offered Bortner recommendations on how to segregate students by sex while refraining from discrimination. In particular, Shaffer suggested that students should be informed in advance of the segregation, and that they should be able to opt out.
So now, not only Bortner, but the teaching assistant, Shaffner (who's now the Title IX ccordinator at Montana State University), and a female physics prof at Cincinnati sho allegedly failed do anything to change Bortner's policy are getting sued.
In addition to the lawsuit, Helmicki has also filed a motion for a temporary restraining order against the defendants.
The university's recollection of the incidents is somewhat different from Helmicki's:
[Arts and sciences dean Kenneth] Petren said he reached out to Kay Kinoshota, head of the physics department, upon learning of the incident. Kinoshota looked into the incident and determined that there had been a chain of miscommunication, he said. …
“I think the faculty member was trying to convey that if a female student wanted to be in a group with another female student, we should accommodate that,” Petren said. “We don’t have an official policy on that, but I think it’s a good practice.”
“There was an isolated teaching assistant who misinterpreted instructions from the faculty member about how to form groups,” Petren added. “Then the student misinterpreted that and thought it would segregate the whole class.”
Helmicki's lawyer, Chris Finney, describes the situation as a "shocking" case in which Cincinnati administrators "ratified this bad conduct at the highest levels and refused to do anything about it.”
Another way of looking at it is as an example of the principle that no good deed goes unpunished.