A Win for Academic Mothers

UT Austin lost a pregnancy- and sex-bias case against a professor who said the university held her motherhood against her in her tenure bid. Now the university owes her $3 million.

March 16, 2022
 
Evdokia Nikolova
Evdokia Nikolova

The University of Texas at Austin must pay an engineering professor denied tenure $3 million, because it would have promoted her in 2019 if she hadn’t been a woman, and pregnant, a federal jury in Texas decided.

The assistant professor, Evdokia Nikolova, was awarded $1 million for past pain and suffering in the gender- and pregnancy-discrimination case and $2 million in future damages, plus $50,000 in back pay and benefits.

Nikolova is still employed by UT Austin as an assistant professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering. Her lawyer, Bob Schmidt, declined to say whether she’s still seeking tenure, citing the university’s right to appeal the verdict. Awarding Nikolova tenure was beyond the jury’s purview, he said.

Above all, Schmidt said he hopes the jury’s decision restores Nikolova’s reputation as a scholar after it was so damaged by the illegal tenure denial.

“The jury heard five days of compelling evidence from lots of witnesses, looked at hundreds of exhibits and documents,” he said. “But the No. 1 thing is how qualified Dr. Nikolova was, and how clearly she met the standards for tenure at UT.”

UT Austin, which has consistently denied that its treatment of Nikolova was unfair, said in a statement that it stands by the arguments it made in court. Yet it also said that it will “continue to examine ways to improve our processes and will implement any required steps to comply with the verdict.” No additional information was immediately available.

Peter Glick, Henry Merritt Wriston Professor in the Social Sciences at Lawrence University, who studies overcoming biases and stereotyping, served as an expert witness for Nikolova during the trial. He said in an interview that there’s a tension between notions of the ideal worker and the ideal mother, and that fields in which workers are perceived to be especially devoted to what they do—think academic science—may be especially punitive for mothers. (On the flip side, he added, men have been shown to gain favor in the workplace when they become fathers, since notions of the ideal worker and the ideal father don’t clash like they do for mothers, as men are idealized as primary providers instead of primary caregivers.) And while much research on gender bias in the workplace examines hiring practices, Glick said, the literature as a whole suggests that bias against women is much more “robust”—meaning worse—when it comes to how institutions promote and reward workers than in hiring.

At the instruction of the court, Glick focused his testimony on the general research in his field, not the facts of Nikolova’s case. For this reason, he declined to comment on Nikolova’s case specifically. But he said that, in general, bias against a woman who is pregnant is a “very plausible outcome” in tenure cases.

Glick added that bias can be overcome both before and during the tenure process by having “really objective criteria and benchmarks,” to the extent possible—and with understanding how gender bias plays out in metrics such as citation counts and student ratings of teachers. That said, tenure decisions are almost always if not always subjective to some degree. It’s because of this inherent subjectivity, and because of the expertise involved, that courts rarely intervene in tenure denials. Nikolova’s case therefore stands out.

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‘That’s Discrimination Based on Pregnancy and Sex’

Nikolova sued UT Austin in fall 2019, after the university’s faculty Committee of Counsel on Academic Freedom and Responsibility recommended that her tenure denial be reconsidered and that the department of electrical and computer engineering conduct a “substantial review of gender equity, diversity and inclusion.”

Her initial legal complaint says that she sued to “help end UT Austin’s discriminatory practices and policies against women faculty and employees, including those who want to have a family. She also brings this suit because of the damage to her and her career caused by UT Austin’s illegal discriminatory actions.”

Nikolova, who studies how human risk aversion transforms traditional computational models and solutions and how to make complex systems more efficient, earned her Ph.D. in computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She was hired on to UT Austin’s tenure track in 2014 after serving for more than two years on the tenure track at Texas A&M University. She says it was always understood when she transferred to UT Austin that her prior tenure-track time would count toward her assistant professorship there. 

She went up for tenure in 2018–19, following eight years on the tenure track, which included a “probationary extension” and “modified instructional duty” in 2015–16 for the birth of her first child. She worked on modified instructional duty only (no extension) for her second pregnancy, the year she applied for tenure.

Nikolova’s department colleagues approved her tenure bid, with a committee of full professors describing her as leading a “world-class research program,” having a “solid publication record, with 30 conference papers and 4 journal papers,” exceeding expectations in teaching, and more. Her department chair compared her favorably “to her most prominent peers at the first-tier departments in Electrical and Computer Engineering.” Manuel Blum, a Turing Award recipient, also wrote a letter on her behalf, saying, “You could not find a better role model for your students.”

The Cockrell School of Engineering’s Tenure and Promotion Committee also voted in favor of tenure and promotion, unanimously. But Nikolova’s then dean (and now provost) Sharon Wood said in a written assessment that she considered Nikolova to be going up for “early tenure”—two years early—and that she was therefore judging her against a higher standard than is typical for tenure. President Gregory Fenves, who has since become president of Emory University, made the final call against tenure for Nikolova, citing concerns about her grant funding and her publication record, which he counted as including three papers and a “modest” 18 peer-reviewed conference proceedings.

In considering her to have applied for tenure early despite her having been on the tenure track since 2011, Nikolova says UT Austin treated her differently than tenure candidates who hadn’t been pregnant and taken a probationary extension leave for pregnancy. The university awarded tenure to male professors in the department with less time as an assistant professor than Nikolova, and applied more lenient and favorable standards, for instance, she says.

The original complaint says that there are 53 tenured faculty members in Nikolova’s department, only four of whom are women. Since Nikolova first interviewed at UT Austin, nine male assistant professors went up for tenure and got it, while both women who went up for tenure during that period were denied.

UT Austin asked Judge Robert Pitman to dismiss Nikolova’s claims last year, saying, “The essential question for any early-promotion candidate is: ‘why now?’ Nikolova’s record at that time did not provide an affirmative answer. Indeed, although supportive of her candidacy, her own department chair recognized that Nikolova was a marginal candidate for early promotion, as did the dean of the Cockrell School of Engineering, who recommended against promoting her at that time.”

Based on concerns about Nikolova’s performance, “particularly in grant funding and publications,” UT Austin said that it it denied Nikolova a promotion without prejudice, meaning that the tenure case could still be reviewed at the “normal time.”

In denying UT’s motion to dismiss, Pitman said that the differences between the university’s position and Nikolova’s couldn’t be easily reconciled and required more scrutiny.

“The court recognizes that there are many subtleties of the interpersonal relationships, language, and tone that have significant implications for a decision as personalized and subjective as a tenure determination,” Pitman wrote in that order. “Those implicit messages, which may be clear to the participants in these exchanges, are not easily reduced to paper. When dealing with disputed evidence of this nature, the importance of a jury’s role in weighing credibility cannot be overstated. Particularly when taken together, the two evaluations present little factual clarity.”

Schmidt, Nikolova's lawyer, said, “UT basically said, ‘Even though she’s qualified now, let’s wait. Let’s deny her tenure now. If she’s still performing in a couple years, then we’ll see.’ That’s discrimination based on pregnancy and sex.” The jury ultimately agreed.

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