Sex discrimination suit targets mentoring at NIH

March 02, 1994|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,Sun Staff Writer

Dr. Margaret Jensvold hoped to break ground in science -- not law -- when she accepted a prestigious fellowship at the National Institute of Mental Health in 1987.

The Johns Hopkins medical school graduate had been named one of the six "most promising" psychiatric residents in the United States. She envisioned a future in research and writing, perhaps chairing a department at a medical school one day.

Instead, Dr. Jensvold has all but abandoned that dream to turn a national spotlight on a scientific fraternity she says squeezed her out of its ranks. Yesterday, she went to trial in U.S. District Court in Baltimore in a case that could stake new territory on the battleground of sex discrimination.

Unlike many suits that highlight disparities in wages, benefits or promotions, Dr. Jensvold claims NIMH denied her something less tangible: mentoring. That entree to networking and research is critical to launching a serious career in science, her supporters say.

"Without that kind of opportunity, women are pretty much shut out of a great deal of medical research," said Dr. Jensvold's lawyer, Lynne Bernabei.

Dr. Jensvold and some other women have described a sexually hostile atmosphere driven by an "old-boys" aristocracy at NIMH and elsewhere on the campus of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. Her sex discrimination suit, one of several pending against NIH and its affiliates, is the first to go to trial and outlines dozens of incidents over her two years as a medical staff fellow.

According to the suit, which requests unspecified monetary damages:

Dr. Jensvold would be assigned to projects, then taken off. Her own project ideas were given to others, and she was excluded from important conferences and meetings.

When she told her supervisor, Dr. David Rubinow, that, like other first-year fellows, she wanted to work with him on review articles and other publications, he said she shouldn't waste time on either. When she asked what she should be doing, he told her to "enjoy your free time."

She was criticized for being "not dependent enough" on him, and he repeatedly said that colleagues disliked her for being "attractive and competent." Her only hope of success and continuation at NIH hinged on getting psychotherapy, he said.

He later refused to continue her fellowship for a third year.

"To succeed in academic medicine, you have to get grants from NIH, and a bad experience like mine is the kiss of death," said Dr. Jensvold, 37, now in private practice in Bethesda and Washington, D.C.

Dr. Rubinow denies all of the comments attributed to him in the lawsuit.

Government lawyers who are defending NIMH say Dr. Jensvold benefited greatly from her fellowship, worked on several important studies and traveled to a number of conferences in the United States and abroad.

Any problems she had stemmed from her failure to set priorities, Assistant U.S. Attorney Roann Nichols said in an opening statement yesterday.

"Dr. Jensvold was far more interested in networking than in the sweat and tears of hard research," she said. "Her progress, or lack of progress, was determined by the choices she made."

A women's group at NIH called SHER (Self Help for Equal Rights) says discriminatory treatment at NIH and its affiliates is a long-standing problem.

In a 12-month period ending in September, more than 60 sex discrimination or harassment complaints had been filed on the NIH campus, said Billie Mackey, president of SHER.

"We're concerned about the loss in research of these bright young women," she said. "It's a great loss to the research community."

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