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A Hostile Workplace

William Paterson University faces charges of gender harassment, discrimination in its chemistry department

by William G. Schulz
November 16, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 46

Credit: NHRHS2010
Two former female faculty members say they were mistreated during their time at WPU.
Credit: NHRHS2010
Two former female faculty members say they were mistreated during their time at WPU.

In a lawsuit scheduled to go to trial in January 2010 in New Jersey, two female chemists, Anita J. Brandolini and Amber F. Charlebois, are suing their former employer, William Paterson University (WPU), for tolerating a hostile work environment against women in the university’s chemistry department. The university is trying to have the case dismissed, partly arguing that the treatment the two women chemists suffered was not gender based but experienced by men and women alike in the department.

Specifically, Brandolini and Charlebois claim they were victims of gender discrimination and harassment—characterized by yelling, sabotage, and demeaning or belittling behavior—by former chemistry and physics department chair Gary J. Gerardi and longtime chemistry professor Gurdial M. Sharma. Gerardi and Sharma, who spoke with C&EN and deny all the charges, are both still faculty members at WPU.

Observers of the case say, if true, it provides a concrete example of what can happen to women when they enter all or mostly male bastions, such as many chemistry departments around the country have been for generations. As Brandolini and Charlebois contend happened in this case, hostile male colleagues can literally drive women out of a department.

Credit: Devin Kirschner
Credit: Devin Kirschner

Court documents obtained by C&EN show that gender harassment and discrimination complaints have been filed in the past against the WPU department of chemistry and physics (now department of chemistry)—and Gerardi and Sharma in particular. The complaints were filed with the university by a former female chemistry faculty member who is now deceased, 15 female undergraduate students, and one female undergraduate student who also filed a complaint with the Department of Education. Upon investigation by the university and/or DOE, none of the complaints was found to have merit and therefore did not result in any disciplinary action against Gerardi and Sharma.

Brandolini and Charlebois contend, however, that the university merely swept the complaints aside rather than try to deal with a troubling situation involving tenured professors. For example, they have accused the university of withholding critical information from DOE, thus skewing its conclusion.

Credit: Sarah Bolton
Credit: Sarah Bolton

Interview transcripts from WPU’s own investigations of gender-based harassment in the chemistry department show that faculty members in other departments have observed that, in the chemistry department, “they have problems with women.”

“They were yelled at, talked down to, scolded at meetings, given low teaching assignments, and expected to maintain scientific instruments when others were not,” says Brandolini and Charlebois’ attorney, Samuel J. Samaro of the law firm Pashman Stein, in Hackensack, N.J. “We found a long history of antipathy toward women” by Gerardi and Sharma, he says.

Brandolini and Charlebois say that, in hindsight, there were signs of the negative situation they were about to enter when they were first hired at WPU in 2002. Comments about their gender or references to them as “the ladies” should have been red flags, they say. Charlebois reports that Sharma told her during her interview, “Well, it’s good that you are a woman. It would be better if you are a black woman, but it is good that you are a woman.”

“They seemed to have a resentment of women,” Brandolini says of Gerardi and Sharma. She says that perhaps she should have paid more attention to the fact that in the entire history of the department, there had been only one tenured female faculty member, Swadesh Raj, who had filed a gender-based harassment and discrimination complaint against Sharma in 1994.

Gerardi once introduced a department visitor to Brandolini and Charlebois by saying, “Here are our women,” Charlebois recalls. “I felt like we were animals in a zoo.”

Worse treatment was to follow over the several years Brandolini and Charlebois were employed at WPU, say the chemists, who have since moved on to tenure-track positions at other New Jersey schools.

“I was yelled at, given menial tasks in the department, and not allowed to teach senior chemistry courses,” says Charlebois, who is now an assistant professor of chemistry at Fairleigh Dickinson University. One year, “I was told by Gerardi, ‘You’re not going to be teaching biochemistry because you just had a baby,’ ” she recalls. Later, he accused her of being emotionally unstable, she says.

The yelling issue is especially prominent in the case. Both Brandolini and Charlebois report being yelled at by Gerardi and Sharma to the point that they felt physically threatened. Court records show that other faculty members witnessed the yelling, that faculty reported being yelled at by Gerardi and Sharma themselves, and that female students complained of yelling by both men. Internal university documents show that administrators were aware of the yelling issue but did little to address the problem.

When Charlebois reported one such yelling incident—she reported several—to WPU Dean of Science & Health Sandra De Young, court records show, De Young told her she was “working in a hostile environment.” De Young went on to advise Charlebois that if she filed a formal complaint against Gerardi and Sharma, it is likely nothing would happen in terms of disciplinary action.

With the yelling came constant attacks from Gerardi and Sharma concerning how and what Brandolini and Charlebois were teaching, the two women say. They say this treatment was accompanied by both men actively trying to undermine the women’s teaching authority and reputation with WPU students.

“I felt they were trying to control how and what I was teaching,” says Brandolini, who is now an assistant professor of chemistry at Ramapo College. She moved to WPU after a successful 17-year career as a research chemist in industry. She says she was constantly told she was doing the wrong thing or teaching the wrong material. “They decided to evaluate me five times a semester,” she says.

What’s more, Brandolini says, she was frequently interrupted by both Gerardi and Sharma in front of students while she was teaching. She says Gerardi interrupted her during a demonstration of nuclear magnetic resonance equipment on which she was being evaluated. A week later, she says, Sharma interrupted her while she gave a lecture on mass spectrometry. “These were public attempts to humiliate and sow doubts in people’s minds about me and Amber,” she says.

Both women say they were treated particularly unfairly when it came to shared scientific instruments in the department. They say they were denied access to and training on instruments or they were expected to maintain instruments when the department had a staff member dedicated to that job. They say that male members of the department, in contrast, enjoyed the full privileges of support-staff assistance.

For Brandolini, the instrument issue was particularly important. She was denied reappointment and tenure in part because she could not demonstrate proficiency using the instruments or teaching about their use to students. She contends that Gerardi and Sharma, but especially Sharma, sabotaged her efforts to learn to operate and use the department’s scientific instruments, such as NMR and high-performance liquid chromatography equipment.

Other belittling behavior by Gerardi and Sharma, both women say, included shunning or ignoring them or mixing up their names and identities. Both women say they were shocked and hurt that although they had been members of the faculty for several years, Gerardi, as department chairman, could not remember their names or would confuse them with each other or with women from his personal life.

In the fall of 2005, Brandolini was denied tenure and told that her contract would not be renewed for the coming school year. One of the chief reasons was that the tenure and retention committee—which included Gerardi and Sharma—felt that her teaching of advanced chemistry courses lacked depth and rigor. Her problems operating scientific instruments in the department were especially noted.

One expert in chemical education, George M. Bodner, a distinguished professor of chemistry, education, and engineering at Purdue University, sees a different story. He reviewed all of the same materials that the WPU committee had for making it’s retention/tenure decision. In his expert witness report, Bodner writes, “Anita Brandolini possessed sufficient familiarity with analytical instrumentation to teach the analytical instrumentation course and her teaching in that course as well as the associated labs, exhibited sufficient depth and rigor. It is also my opinion, within a reasonable degree of certainty in the field of chemical education, that Brandolini’s teaching, scholarship and service to the university merited her retention and ultimately, tenure.”

In December 2005, after seeing what happened to Brandolini, Charlebois filed a formal complaint with the university alleging that she was the victim of a hostile work environment created by Gerardi and Sharma because of her gender. Although she was about to be granted tenure, she resigned in the spring of 2006 because, she says, there was no letup in the abuse she suffered. Finally, both women filed suit against WPU in August 2007 alleging gender-based harassment and discrimination.

WPU administrators, particularly President Arnold Speert, also a chemist, declined to speak with C&EN for this story. In addition, legal counsel for the university did not return phone calls from C&EN seeking comment. The university did investigate Charlebois’ 2005 complaint but concluded that “the evidence does not support a finding of severe and pervasive harassment based on gender that gave rise to an adverse employment consequence.”

Court documents show that the university acknowledges abusive behavior on the part of Gerardi and Sharma. In fact, the university’s defense as the case moves forward is that both men were equal-opportunity harrassers—they were abusive to men and women alike and therefore did not harass and discriminate on the basis of gender.

When C&EN contacted Gerardi for his reaction to the charges, he mispronounced Brandolini’s name. He confused both women’s first names. He insists that Brandolini and Charlebois were not mistreated and that their charges against him are false.

“I can’t say I didn’t mix up their names,” Gerardi says. As for yelling, “I talk loudly because my hearing is not that great.” He says both women were welcomed to the department and treated with respect. “The women came and we treated them very nicely,” he says. “I used the word ‘ladies’—I didn’t think that was bad.”

However, one expert set to testify in the case, Jennifer L. Berdahl, a professor of organizational behavior at the University of Toronto, sees this treatment as significant. In her expert witness report, she writes, “The fact that Sharma and Gerardi frequently appeared to confuse, or to treat as interchangeable, Brandolini and Charlebois (and allegedly Gerardi’s daughter Helen) suggests they thought of these faculty members first and foremost as women rather than as colleagues and scientists, and that they shared a tendency to ignore individuating information about these faculty members as individuals and experts.”

This behavior, Berdahl tells C&EN, was accompanied by the yelling, the low teaching assignments, denigrating them in front of students, and giving them grief over the use of scientific instruments. It is all “very consistent with gender-based harassment and sabotage.”

As for the department’s scientific instruments, “Professor Bartolini [sic] asked the technician to teach a lab for her because she didn’t know the instruments,” Gerardi says, and the department acceded to her request. But, he adds, based on Brandolini’s résumé, “we thought she was an NMR expert. We were sort of shocked that an NMR expert needed to be trained on the instrument.”

In 2008, because of his behavior, Gerardi admits, he was asked to step down as chemistry department chair by university administrators. “As chairperson, I was in the middle of a lot of contentious issues,” he says. “They want to characterize it as yelling, but it wasn’t. I tell the truth, and I tell it the way I see it. Could I have been a little nicer? Well, sure.”

Sharma also dismisses the yelling charge. “That is a lie,” he tells C&EN. “We discussed things—I don’t know how you call this yelling.” And yet, court records show that WPU’s De Young had previously warned Sharma that a female student had lodged a charge of yelling against him. As for the other charges, Sharma says of Brandolini and Charlebois, “I forgot their names. That is so common with me. I confused them sometimes. I am not very good with names.”


“My conclusion is that [the WPU department of chemistry and physics] was a hostile work environment” for Brandolini and Charlebois, Berdahl says. “There were persistent patterns of sex-based harassment.”

Berdahl is a paid expert witness for the plaintiffs in the case. However, she tells C&EN that she did not agree to become an expert witness until she had read through all of the evidence herself and come to the same conclusion about the situation as the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Samaro.

The case will be heard by the Superior Court of New Jersey.


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