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She Said: Columbia University Professor Sheena Iyengar Sued by Former Research Associate for Gender Discrimination

She Said: Columbia University Professor Sheena Iyengar Sued by Former Research Associate for Gender Discrimination

  • Elizabeth Blackwell has accused Sheena Iyengar, who teaches business management, of assigning her “female” jobs while she was working as a research associate in her office, while her male colleague was given proper responsibilities.

An Indian American professor at New York’s Columbia University is being sued for gender-based discrimination by a former research associate. Elizabeth Blackwell has accused Sheena Iyengar of assigning her “female” jobs, which included “personal and supportive administrative and secretarial tasks,” while she was working as a research associate in her office, Washington Square News (WSN), New York University’s independent student newspaper reported. Although the lawsuit was filed in a Manhattan Supreme Court on Feb. 1 this year, WSN broke the story earlier this month. 

Blackwell graduated from Columbia in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, and started working as a research associate for Iyengar “after a protracted five-month interview process.” 

Iyengar, 52, is blind. She is the inaugural S.T. Lee Professor of Business in the Management Department at Columbia Business School. She is also the best-selling author of “The Art of Choosing,” and gives TED talks on how our choices construct our relationships, careers, world-views, and identities. “The art of choosing, as I define it, is the ability to understand and accept our limitations and, at the same time, take advantage of the possibilities before us,” she says in the book.

The Lawsuit

Blackwell told WSN that instead of learning and gaining experience on the job, she ended up doing secretarial tasks that included applying Iyengar’s makeup and booking restaurants for her romantic dates.” In contrast, Blackwell’s male counterpart “encountered none of the obstacles that she was forced to overcome,” the suit alleges, The New York Post said. She has accused Iyengar of “disturbing gender-based discrimination behavior and retaliation” in the lawsuit, The Post added. Additionally, Blackwell told WSN that Iyengar “switched her research position with the male co-worker, even though the responsibilities she assigned him fell outside of his program coordinator job description.”

Sheena Iyengar, second from left, participating in an Asia Society panel discussion in this undated photo.

When Blackwell confronted Iyengar about the lack of research tasks, she was reportedly told that she was “lucky” to have been hired since she was a woman and that she “would have been out on [her] ass a long time ago” if she was a man, the report said, citing the taped discussions it acquired.

The same recording contains a complaint filed by Iyengar to university authorities that she was being harassed by Blackwell despite promoting her “at every step.” She further told authorities that despite having no common interests, she would still write Blackwell a letter of recommendation. “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 did not accommodate the very needs of this position,” Iyengar said, according to the recording.

Following both allegations, the university launched its own investigation and submitted a report, WSN said. But Blackwell told the newspaper that “most of the details about the gender discrimination she experienced were disregarded and that no action was taken. At that point she realized that “they weren’t willing to support me,” she told WSN. A response to Blackwell’s complaint will be filed by January 2023, WSN reported, citing court documents.

As a child, she was diagnosed with a rare form of retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited disease of retinal degeneration. By age 9, she could no longer read, and at age 16, she was completely blind.

Subsequently, her contract was terminated by the university in 2019. While the reason given was “lack of funding,” WSN points out that Blackwell’s position was being funded through June 2019.” Since then she has “struggled to find work,” and is also dealing with “insomnia, depression and anxiety,” she told WSN.

Who is Sheena Iyengar?

Born in Toronto, Canada, to Sikh parents who immigrated from Delhi, Iyengar was raised in New York City. As a child, she was diagnosed with a rare form of retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited disease of retinal degeneration. By age 9, she could no longer read, and at age 16, she was completely blind, although able to perceive light. She lost her father to a heart attack when she was 13. This change in family circumstances, and Iyengar’s loss of vision, prompted her mother to steer her toward higher education and self-sufficiency. 

Iyengar graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1992 with a B.S. in Economics from the Wharton School and a B.A. in Psychology from the College of Arts and Sciences. She then earned her Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Stanford University in 1997. Her dissertation, “Choice and its Discontents,” received the Best Dissertation Award.

See Also

After growing up in a traditional Sikh American home, Iyengar married Garud Iyengar, a Hindu, and also a professor at Columbia. The couple is now divorced and shares custody of their son, Ishaan.

In a March 17, 2010 interview with The New York Times, Iyengar told reporter Penelope Green that she met her then-husband “by chance, at a bus stop in San Francisco when they were graduate students at Stanford.” She told Green that at the time she found him “morose and geeky.” They fell in love, and married a few years later, “horrifying their families whose respective cultures view arranged marriages as sacrosanct.”

Iyengar first started researching choice as an undergrad at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania where she graduated with a B.S. in Economics. In an interview with the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), she said she can trace her interest in choice back to her own family life — “my first study,” as she calls it. She was raised in the collision of two cultures, each of which is based on markedly different ideas about choice. There was the strict Sikh world she was born into, “which had all sorts of rules and duties you had to think about constantly: you couldn’t cut your hair, you couldn’t talk to boys,” she said, and the American one outside her door in Flushing, Queens, for which choice, of course, is its own religion.

She received the Presidential Early Career Award in 2002, and in 2011 and 2019, and was named a member of the Thinkers50, a global ranking of the top 50 management thinkers. She won the Dean’s Award for Outstanding Core Teaching from Columbia Business School in 2012 and was named one of the World’s Best B-School Professors by Poets and Quants. 

Her new book, “Think Bigger,” out early next year, is based on her course of the same name, where she created a six-step method for teaching people how to take advantage of lessons learned from neurological and cognitive science to put our minds to work when generating our best ideas. She also teaches another course, the Innovation Salon, a forum comprised of students, alumni, faculty, and Innovation Fellows which seeks to not only understand the issues facing the industry today, but how to address those issues with innovation.  

Iyengar has one sister, Jasmeet Sethi, who is also blind. The Harvard-trained lawyer-economist is the CEO and founder of Sethi Clarity Advisers, a boutique consulting firm providing expert regulatory advice and research analysis to companies in the financial services industry. She is also the founder and CEO of BuildUp Capital, an early-stage start-up that helps freelancers save for retirement.

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