Renowned biologist suing Salk Institute for alleged gender discrimination by organization

SAN DIEGO (KUSI) — A renowned molecular biologist is suing the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, alleging gender discrimination by the life sciences organization, her lawyer announced Thursday.

Beverly Emerson, a Salk employee for nearly 31 years, is the third woman to sue the institute in the past couple of weeks on the issue, along with biologists Vicki Lundblad and Katherine Jones.

"After decades of trying to work within the administrative structure to resolve these issues, I agree with my colleagues that we can no longer turn a blind eye to the blatant discrimination that exists against female full professors in the Salk culture,” Emerson said.

Emerson alleged that, while the Institute publicly touts its commitment to women in science, it privately operates as an antiquated boys club, undermining and marginalizing its tenured female professors.

Salk President Elizabeth Blackburn issued a statement in response to the suit.

"As a woman who has seen first-hand the extraordinary contributions female scientists have made to science and health research, I have both a personal and professional interest in ensuring that women are valued, supported and encouraged to be at the forefront of this critical work,” Blackburn said. "I would never preside over an organization that in any way condones, openly or otherwise, the marginalizing of female scientists.”

The lawsuit, filed in San Diego Superior Court, alleges Salk promotes women at slower rates; pays them less than their male counterparts, regardless of their experience and scientific contributions; deprives them of their equitable share of resources to fund their laboratories; and forces them to work in a hostile environment in which they are undermined, disrespected and treated unequally.

Emerson, a cancer researcher, also alleged that Salk leaders have been aware of the discrimination problem for over a decade, but failed to take corrective action, thwarting the careers of its tenured female professors.

"The administration and Board of Trustees have known about these gender disparities for over a decade, yet have failed to take corrective action as required not only by its own policies but as required by law,” lawyer Alreen Haeggquist alleged.

"Dr. Emerson, former chair of the Salk faculty and former member of the Salk Board of Trustees, made the difficult decision to file suit because the Salk Institute refuses to be transparent in its resource allocations and provide equal treatment to all scientists, despite their gender,” Haeggquist said. "It is time for the Salk Institute to stop paying lip service and take action so that future female scientists will not have to bear the same discriminatory burdens.”

According to her complaint, filed Tuesday, Emerson is asking for recovery of past and future lost wages and benefits, punitive damages, legal costs and "injunction restraining defendant from continuing to engage in unlawful and unfair business practices.”

Blackburn said the lawsuits will be defended vigorously.

"Underscoring their lack of merit, the characterizations already have been debunked by other current female professors at the institute who have flourished here,” she said.

Joanne Chory, a professor, and director of Salk’s Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Laboratory, said she feels "fortunate” to have spent most of her scientific career at the Institute.

"While there are always opportunities to increase access for women scientists, I’ve always thought that the Salk has provided me with the facilities and resources that I needed to flourish as a scientist,” Chory said. "I have enjoyed collaborations and made discoveries that would not have been possible anywhere else.”

Chory said she’s in her 29th year at Salk.

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