Diversity - Case E2

Lisa Berns is a 26-year-old postdoctoral fellow working in the laboratory of Dr. Steven Hodson. There are three other postdocs in the lab, all men. Lisa's field of science is in fact dominated by men, and she often feels isolated. Lisa also believes that, because of attitudes in the scientific profession toward women, she has to work twice as hard as her male colleagues to establish her professional credibility.

Her mentor Dr. Hodson, who is forty years Lisa's senior, has an excellent reputation professionally and is extremely well-liked by his colleagues. Dr. Hodson has a charming manner and a clever, often self-effacing, sense of humor. Lisa is in general fond of Dr. Hodson and feels lucky to have acquired a position in his lab. Dr. Hodson does have one trait, however, that detracts from his otherwise admirable character. His repertory of humor often includes remarks about women that, in Lisa's view, border on the distasteful. Often these remarks are couched in terms of Dr. Hodson' s supposed prowess with women that are humorous only for their intentional irony. Nonetheless, Dr. Hodson's quips make Lisa uncomfortable and, she believes, discourage her colleagues from taking her work seriously. In addition, Dr. Hodson's humor seems to spur the other male postdocs into exchanging jokes and remarks that she feels are less well intended than Dr. Hodson' s brand of humor. Finally, although Lisa is sure he means well, Dr. Hodson seems to "protect" her from challenging or trying situations. The most difficult scientific problems seem to go to her colleagues, and Dr. Hodson often offers assistance on her projects, even when Lisa feels she does not need it. Nonetheless, given the reputation of the lab, Lisa decides for the time being to do her best to ignore this problem.

After Lisa has been in the lab for over a year, the time comes for the national science meeting for Lisa's discipline, which will take place across the country in Las Vegas. Last year, Dr. Hodson attended the meeting alone, but this year he has funds to take one postdoc with him. The decision is difficult, but several sessions relate very closely to Lisa's research and Dr. Hodson decides that Lisa has the most to gain by attending. Lisa is delighted, of course, but her fellow postdocs are clearly and understandably disappointed. One day Lisa overhears two of her male colleagues joking among themselves that Dr. Hodson's has other than scientific intentions for this meeting. Their comments also suggest that Lisa has done something inappropriate to curry favor with her mentor. Upon overhearing similar remarks on several more occasions, Lisa confronts her colleagues, who retort, "Well, there are certain advantages to being a woman, aren't there?" Lisa feels offended and angry and wishes to pursue the matter further. However, she finds the situation too embarrassing and awkward to discuss with Dr. Hodson and is uncertain what repercussions such a discussion would have on her career.


  1. Do Dr. Hodson's actions create a hostile environment for women? Why or why not? Would you characterize these actions as sexual harassment? Do the actions of Lisa's fellow postdocs qualify as sexual harassment? Why or why not?
  2. How might this sort of atmosphere in the laboratory be avoided? Now that the current situation exists, how might it be improved under these circumstances?
  3. Should Dr. Hodson be held accountable for the behavior of Lisa's colleagues? Why or why not?
  4. Given the awkwardness of discussing the matter with Dr. Hodson, and her affection for him otherwise, how might Lisa follow up on her concerns? What support should she have available to her?

Further Discussion:

  1. Consider a somewhat different scenario in which the postdoctoral fellow is Gene, a 26-year-old African-American male working in an all white laboratory. Rather than facing remarks and innuendo relating to his gender, Gene must deal with subtle, yet pervasive attitudes concerning people of color. When invited to attend the scientific meeting by Dr. Hodson, he overhears remarks, and is eventually told to his face, that Dr. Hodson is "bending over backwards" to provide opportunities for Gene simply because Gene is black and considered disadvantaged. Should Gene deal with this situation any differently than Lisa? Would the solutions proposed in answer to Question 2 above also help prevent this sort of climate in the lab?


School of Graduate Studies

230 Elizabeth Ave, St. John's, NL, CANADA, A1B 3X9

Postal Address: P.O. Box 4200, St. John's, NL, CANADA, A1C 5S7

Tel: (709) 864-8000