Female student sues UC for trying to help female physicists

A student is suing a former professor on the grounds that he segregated men and women in his classroom, but released documents show that the intent was actually to create a more inclusive atmosphere.

In a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court of Cincinnati, Casey Helmicki alleges that a University of Cincinnati professor used sexist teaching techniques in the classroom that stood in direct violation of both Title IX provisions and the Fourteenth Amendment, The Cincinnati Enquirer reports.

According to the suit, a teaching assistant separated Helmicki from a group of male students on the first day of class and encouraged her to work with other female students.

“It’s a little bit demoralizing to realize that we weren’t able to work with other genders in the lab,” Helmicki told The Enquirer. “As a woman in science, studying chemistry and neuroscience, it was alarming that a school like UC would allow something like this to be permitted in the classroom.”

Helmicki claims she approached Professor Larry Bortner (who was the teaching assistant’s boss at the time) after the incident with her concerns. Bortner himself, after defending the practice, later brought the matter to the attention of the school’s Title IX Coordinator, Jyl Shaffer, who concluded that the model is “research-based” and not “inherently inequitable,” though she did recommend instituting an “opt-out” provision.

In fact, in an email exchange released in the lawsuit and obtained by The Enquirer, Bortner explains the technique, saying it was actually intended to “change” physics into a less “predominantly male” field.

“Physicists are predominantly male. To change this, we try to make the educational environment open to females,” Bortner wrote, indicating that he was actually looking out for the best interest of his female students. “Studies have shown that females do better in small groups (three or four) that contain more females than males [rather] than more males than females. I train instructors who teach the labs and have told them to rearrange groups if there is one female with three males; if at all possible have all-female groups.”

The practice, he explained, was not as simple as separating all females from all males, but rather was intended to foster a higher female presence within lab groups.

Nonetheless, Bortner and his university are now being sued by Helmicki, whose attorney said the practice is “not constitutional and not legal for university-level education.”

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“This has gone to the highest level of the university and we’ve tried to fix it in every commodious way possible,” attorney Chris Finney said. “But this isn’t just about Casey, this is about the university as a whole.”

Notably, WCPO reports that Helmicki’s attorney has sought more than $10,000 in legal fees from the university, but that school officials denied the request, saying Helmicki was allowed to transfer from the course immediately and that it was “unclear…where a $10,000 damages figure could have been derived.”

Helmicki, though, continues to defend the suit, saying the practice is shocking “considering how far women have come in science fields,” and noting that men and women continue to work separately in UC physics labs.

“You read about it and other issues in history books,” she added. “But it’s hard to realize in 2016 things like this could still be written into new ones.”

The school has remained silent on the matter because the lawsuit is still pending.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @AGockowski