"I believe workplace discrimination still occurs on a daily basis even though there have been significant efforts to educate employers and managers about this issue; but it unfortunately continues to exist," says employment lawyer John Rossi of Boston, MA.
If only Linda Brodsky had been taught that principle while in medical school, her life may have followed a very different course -- and she may not have had to sue for claims of gender discrimination and equal-pay violations.
Type A personality
Brodsky attended Bryn Mawr College and the Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania. "After my third year surgery clerkship, I knew that my personality, drive and robust energy level were best suited for a life in surgery." Brodsky trained in the Bronx, wrote award-winning papers, married and had her first child as a young resident. She believed that she was living proof that women could "have it all."
In 1996 Brodsky became a tenured, full professor of otolaryngology (ear, nose and throat/head and neck surgery) and pediatrics at State University of New York at Buffalo (SUNY AB). As the first woman to rise to that rank in the surgical department at the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, she was a trailblazer.
Brodsky taught and mentored hundreds of medical students, and trained more than 80 residents in the highly-specialized field of otolaryngology, in addition to maintaining a busy clinical practice at the Children's Hospital of Buffalo. But her 18 years on the faculty did nothing to prepare her for the challenges she would face as a female physician in what was-and still is- a man's world."
The first wave of discrimination
Brodsky first faced financial discrimination.
Initially, her income was exclusively derived from her clinical practice at the Children's Hospital of Buffalo. But in addition to maintaining a busy practice, Brodsky also contributed substantial teaching time, research time and administrative duties to the medical school and hospital -- for which she received no compensation.
After a year at the University at Buffalo, Brodsky learned that other academic surgeons were receiving compensation from both the hospital and the university. Because all of these other surgeons were male, Brodsky approached the administration about the possible oversight regarding her compensation. "I went to the dean with my request and only then did I receive what I was told was the 'usual' stipend for a surgeon from the university."
The second wave of discrimination
Brodsky accepted what the dean told her about her pay scale and continued to rise through the ranks, despite her distaste for the financial situation she faced. When a chair position within her department opened, Brodsky applied believing that she was a good candidate, but the position was awarded to someone else. Brodsky's relationship with this new boss was difficult and strained from the start. "His ongoing harassment, both in the work environment and in my personal life was constant and crippling. I was singled out for evaluations at which I was demeaned and berated for my style and inability to be a team player," Brodsky says.
That chair lost his New York State medical license due to patient-care issues and was forced to resign as head of the Otolaryngology Department. Brodsky applied to be assigned as interim chair because of the nine members of her department, she was the only full professor and the only person with seniority, qualifications and experience capable of running such a department. "I was beyond shocked when they chose a non-university, non-academic otolaryngologist -- a male -- as interim chair. I protested and was informed by the dean that he had 'no baggage.'" Strike two. Brodsky began to see a pattern emerging.
The last wave of discrimination
The last wave of discrimination came as the change in leadership of the Otolaryngology Department Residency Training Program underwent review. Brodsky was sick when she learned that new faculty members, with fewer responsibilities and lower ranks, were making as much as two to five times what she was being compensated by the university and the affiliated hospital. The red flag: all of those highly-paid doctors were male.
When her department finally published the job description for the permanent chair, all the requirements for the position were so arbitrarily narrow that they precluded Brodsky from even applying for the job. Brodsky needed no more proof or convincing that she had become a victim of gender discrimination in the workplace.
The final straw
In 1998, Brodsky was fired from the university without due process. She went into state court and sued for restoration. In 2000, Brodsky hired a lawyer because her attempts to diffuse the workplace discrimination kept getting worse. She filed seven charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and received her "right to sue" letters 18 months later. In September 2001 she filed her first claim in federal court. "My lawsuit became a third full-time job. I constantly worried about how I was going to do all of this and still have time for my family, my work, my friends and myself. The emotional toll was compounded by the enormous economic toll."
In 2005, she was relieved of her responsibilities and compensation as director of the Center for Pediatric Quality at the Children's Hospital. Two years later, Brodsky was abruptly fired from her position as director of Pediatric Otolaryngology, ending her 20-year career at the hospital, and forcing Brodsky and her associates to leave the hospital. "This event occurred three weeks after I filed another claim of gender discrimination with the EEOC against the hospital. I then filed another claim of gender discrimination in federal court due to the hospital's adverse actions against me."
Why Brodsky's story Is different
Brodsky was different in that she spent several years trying to "fix" what she believed to be the discrimination she was experiencing at work, before she enlisted legal help. "My only reward was escalating harassment and retaliation," Brodsky says.
Why workplace discrimination Is not reported
It is important to remember that discrimination is not just one act and it is not always obvious. Much of the workplace discrimination that occurs is not even reported, says Rossi, because of fear, laws, limitations and time frames.
- People do not want to do anything they perceive will make an unpleasant situation worse, especially in the workplace where they must earn a living to provide for their and their family's economic support.
- Some do not want to harm their opportunity for career advancement by pursuing claims for discrimination.
- While there are laws in place to protect workers who have been the subject of discrimination complaints from retaliation by employers, these retaliation laws also have limits. Courts have limited the time frame within which the alleged act of retaliation must take place compared to the underlying alleged act of discrimination. These time frames can be as short as a few months and, in Rossi's opinion: "In reality, managers have longer memory spans than a few months and the act of retaliation can come several months or even years after the alleged act of discrimination." Look at Brodsky's case. The discrimination she believes she experienced occurred in waves over a long period of time.
- There is a short statute of limitations for filing these types of claims. For example, Massachusetts requires that all discrimination claims be filed with the EEOC within 300 days of the act of discrimination. That is less than a year.
Lawsuit became her life
Brodsky spent eight years on her lawsuit. She filed another five EEOC charges, four claims in federal court, was in the New York Supreme Court three more times, the court of appeals two times and a party to at least five union grievances against the university, which had a history of gender disparity that spanned 30 years and had been documented by SUNY AB itself.
Brodsky is proof that these issues still exist in the workplace, even at the highest levels and among some of the most educated people. The upshot of her saga as a litigant is that Brodsky helped changed the salaries for all clinical faculty at all four SUNY medical schools through one of her union grievances and she found a new calling in life, to help other women by working toward gender equality in the workplace.
Workplace discrimination for professional women
According to Brodsky, "workplace discrimination for professional women is very different. Most of us have special skills so it [discrimination] isn't about losing one's ability to earn a living or do fulfilling work." That is the key take-away. Discrimination is different everywhere and different for everyone. Once you are a victim of it, discrimination touches every part of your life.
To safeguard yourself against potential workplace discrimination Brodsky recommends:
- Get involved.
- Get educated.
- Learn to negotiate and ask the important questions up front.
- If at all possible, find places that value and respect women, pay them fairly, and give them the same opportunities to achieve as they would a man.
Brodksy's last piece of advice? "Please, don't discount your worth because you choose to have children and want to have more flexibility."