Columbia alum files gender discrimination lawsuit against renowned professor

Elizabeth Blackwell, a Columbia graduate, filed a lawsuit against professor Sheena Iyengar over alleged discriminatory workplace practices.

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Columbia University’s Butler Library located on 535 W. 114th St. (Samson Tu for WSN)

Rui Johnson Petri, Contributing Writer

When Elizabeth Blackwell received a job offer from Sheena Iyengar, a renowned Columbia University professor and best-selling author, in 2017, she was overjoyed. She believed the research position could help her gain valuable experience for her upcoming graduate school applications. However, Blackwell claims Iyengar soon assigned many of her research duties to a male co-worker because “she was a ‘woman,’” according to a lawsuit she later filed.

Blackwell, a Columbia graduate, accused the professor of practicing “disturbing gender-based discrimination behavior and retaliation” in the lawsuit, which was filed on Feb. 1 of this year. Iyengar — who is blind and rose to fame as a result of her TED Talks — effectively switched Blackwell’s research position with the male co-worker, even though the responsibilities she assigned him fell outside of his program coordinator job description. 

Blackwell was assigned to “personal and supportive” tasks since they were “better suited” for the “female gender,” according to the complaint. These tasks included applying Iyengar’s makeup and booking restaurants for her romantic dates, Blackwell said in an interview. At one point, she said Iyengar tried to set her up on dates, which she found “extremely upsetting.” 

Gender discrimination remains a pervasive issue in academia and in the workplace. Forty-two percent of working women in the United States said they had faced gender discrimination in the workplace, according to the Pew Research Center. Columbia has previously come under criticism for its handling of discrimination allegations.

Iyengar reportedly told Blackwell that she was “lucky” to have been hired since was a woman when she confronted her about the lack of research tasks. She was also told that she “would have been out on [her] ass a long time ago” if she was a man.  

Shortly after, Iyengar complained to Columbia that she was being harassed by Blackwell. Iyengar said she had promoted Blackwell “at every step,” and that there was a “no fit” between their interests, but that she would write her a letter of recommendation, according to recorded conversations obtained by WSN.

“If there was discrimination in this office, it was, it is, the discrimination that I felt as a blind professor who was being perpetually bullied by my employee and does not accommodate the very needs of this position,” Iyengar said. 

Iyengar did not respond to requests for comment, but she has previously spoken about the difficulties of navigating the world as a blind person. 

“I cannot use an iPhone, I cannot use a BlackBerry and those are disadvantages,” Iyengar said in an interview in 2016. “I do need humans in the sense that I have to constantly call in when I am abroad and check with my assistant who has to read me my emails over the phone.”

The lawsuit reveals a difficulty many universities face when handling cases with conflicting claims of discrimination. Universities, including Columbia and NYU, offer resources for faculty and students with disabilities and have extensive non-discrimination policies, but there is little guidance on how to deal with situations of competing claims.  

Andrew Schilling, one of the two attorneys representing Iyengar and Columbia, declined to comment. A response to Blackwell’s complaint will be filed by January 2023, according to court documents. 

Columbia launched an investigation into both allegations and submitted a final report, but Blackwell said most of the details about the gender discrimination she experienced were disregarded and that no action was taken. Columbia did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“It became very clear to me at that point that they weren’t willing to support me,” Blackwell said.

The university terminated Blackwell’s contract in January 2019 due to a lack of funding — despite her position being funded through June 2019. Her attorney, David DeToffol, called this decision “retaliatory.”

DeToffol asked to be removed from the case on Aug. 8 of this year, due to “irreconcilable differences” on how to proceed, but withdrew the motion on Sep. 22. Blackwell said they disagreed about the scope of the complaint, but could not comment further because the motion was still pending. DeToffol declined to comment on the case.

After leaving the university, Blackwell said she has struggled to find work. She continues to deal with insomnia, depression and anxiety, which she claims she developed while working for Iyengar.

“These are stories that need to be told — stories that women need to share with each other,” Blackwell said. 

Contact Rui Johnson Petri at [email protected]