Cook County Record

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Women accuse UC Facilities Services Department of favoring 'white Christian men'

Federal Court

By Scott Holland | Nov 13, 2019

University of chicago 1280
University of Chicago | Ndshankar [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

CHICAGO — The University of Chicago is facing a federal lawsuit accusing its Facilities Services Department of making hiring and promotion decisions to favor white Christian men.

Current employee Janet Spencer and her former colleague, Sara Popengahen, sued the school Nov. 8, alleging a pattern of discrimination that goes back to 2014. According to the complaint, in the past five years there have been more than six internal discrimination complaints, multiple Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charges and a federal lawsuit.

Rather than take action, the women alleged, the university “has supported the transformation of Facilities Services into a white, Christian, male stronghold” and said the federal government is investigating the department’s employment practices.

Popenhagen said she filed an internal complaint of gender discrimination, then lost a promised promotion and a “career-enhancing opportunity” to attend a leadership program at the university’s business school, which instead was given “to a newly hired white male.”

The complaint named as defendants Kevin Austin, a current UC employee, and Gerald McGillian, former head of the operations division. It also singled out department head Jim McConnell as “a sexist." The complaint alleges McConnell "has made remarks about how women dress" and "talks down to women." The complaint further has alleged "pay and job titles within Facilities Services are arbitrarily set and favor men" and men have been promoted "who are not as qualified as their female counterparts and in at least three instances who have no college degree.”

The women accused men in the utility plant of “spewing anti-Semitic epithets so virulent that a former employee was forced to be closeted about his Judaism for years for fear of workplace harassment and potentially physical harm.” Popenhagen also accused McConnell of inviting “an anti-gay speaker to address” a mandatory all-staff meeting, then chided her for asking to be excused and filing a complaint with human resources.

The complaint includes detailed allegations about Spencer’s history with Austin, saying he harassed her in the same manner as with previous female employees, behavior he did not replicate with white male colleagues. “For example, he stopped speaking to her, he interrupted and spoke over her at meetings, he disparaged her around the office and he undermined her to her subordinates.”

Spencer also detailed cuts to staff she supervised, her pay history and how her supervisors transferred responsibilities to colleagues and promoted under qualified workers to management positions. She said the Facilities Services HR employees didn’t adequately address her reports, saying at one point McGillian ordered her to falsify the performance review of an employee she recommended be fired.

Formal allegations include violation of Title VII and Illinois Human Rights Act protections against gender discrimination and retaliation. Spencer accused the school of violating the state’s Equal Pay Act and accused Austin and McGillian of tortious interference with business expectancy and advantage. Popengahen also accused McGillian of tortious interference with business expectancy.

In addition to a jury trial, the women seek a civil penalty for the Equal Pay Act claims, damages as compensation for lost wages and benefits as well as back pay, front pay and lost future earnings. They also seek compensatory and punitive damages and for the school to pay their legal fees.

The women are represented in the matter by the Law Offices of Johanna J. Raimond Ltd., of Chicago.

In response to the lawsuit, the University of Chicago issued the following statement: “Diversity and inclusion is one of the core values of the University of Chicago, and the members of our University community are dedicated to ensuring that people from a variety of backgrounds and experiences can thrive on campus. The University is not providing a comment on a pending legal matter.”

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