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Women In Science

How Shyamala Rajender fought back against discrimination

This chemist’s class-action lawsuit against the University of Minnesota 50 years ago helped pave the way for women in academia

by Andrea Widener, special to C&EN
March 7, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 9

A portrait of Shyamala Rajender.
Credit: Courtesy of Shyamala Rajender

When male faculty and administrators started attacking Shyamala Rajender’s character, she relied on one of chemists’ great weapons to prove them wrong: her detailed lab notebooks.

Those notes, along with others the then-postdoctoral fellow kept about her daily activities, helped Rajender rebut claims University of Minnesota Twin Cities faculty and administrators made to justify the Chemistry Department’s decision not to hire her as a tenure-track faculty member—despite initial promises that it would.


Education: PhD, chemistry, University of Wyoming, 1965; JD, Hamline University School of Law, 1976.

Notable event: Fifty years ago, Shyamala Rajender filed a class-action lawsuit for sex discrimination against the University of Minnesota Twin Cities when its Chemistry Department denied her a tenure-track faculty position.

Name of her book: Up Against the Ivory Tower: a Memoir by Shyamala Rajender

Those attacks were launched during Rajender’s 1973 lawsuit against the university for sex discrimination, a case that was later expanded into a class action. After almost a decade, she won that case, and the settlement required the university to hire more female faculty, especially in the Chemistry Department. The case also helped dozens of women get restitution for jobs, promotion, or pay raises they did not get.

“I haven’t regretted it one bit ever since,” remembers Rajender, who left chemistry in 1973 soon after the lawsuit was filed to become a lawyer. She now lives in California.

Rajender’s case was one of a handful of lawsuits against universities in the 1970s that paved the way for greater participation of women in academia and served as a model for other women who felt discriminated against to follow.

“If you would have said in many women’s activist circles in the late ’70s, ‘Rajender,’ people would know who you were talking about,” says Sally Gregory Kohlstedt, an emeritus professor in the University of Minnesota’s Program in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine. Kohlstedt cowrote a 2009 paper about Rajender’s case.

“Many of the changes wouldn’t have happened if there hadn’t been women like Rajender who are willing to stand up and say, ‘Something is wrong here’ and challenge the system,” Kohlstedt says. “It took a lot of courage to do what she did.”

Rajender came to the US in 1960 after getting a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in India. She left India because she wanted to get a PhD in physical chemistry and become a professor, a path that would have been difficult there.

She arrived at the University of Wyoming and earned a PhD. Soon afterward, the school hired her as a faculty member; several other women were on the faculty there, which was unusual at the time. But after a few years, “I wanted to get out and see the rest of the world,” Rajender recalls. She also wanted to get more research experience in her field. She applied for—and was quickly offered—a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Minnesota, where she started working in 1970.

That’s when I said, ‘No, they can’t get away with it,’ because they were smearing me.

Things were fine at first. She worked well with her all-male colleagues. There hadn’t been women on the Chemistry Department faculty for at least 40 years, Kohlstedt’s paper says, and maybe the entire history of the department. They shared dinners at one another’s houses and joked. And the department chair promised her a job when she finished her postdoc.

But when Rajender started asking about that job after 3 years as a postdoc, the department chair told her no because she was a woman and hiring a woman would cause conflict with the male faculty. “The collegiality among them would be destroyed,” she remembers him saying.

At the time, Rajender had a “ ‘don’t rock the boat’ kind of philosophy,” she says. But when the chair said he wouldn’t hire her because she is a woman, she thought, “That’s baloney. What can I do?” Rajender remembers. “I was publishing; I was doing research; I was doing teaching. Everything.”

After sharing her story with some chemistry graduate students and female faculty from other departments, Rajender reported the chair’s behavior to the university’s administration. She says administrators confirmed hearing rumors that the Chemistry Department discriminated against women in its hiring, but they argued that no one had ever come forward to substantiate them. The University of Minnesota’s president appointed a committee to investigate her allegations.

After several months of research, the committee found that the department discriminated against women and against her, Rajender says. “The department had not ever called any woman for even an interview,” she says. And the committee recommended to the university’s president that the university hire Rajender into a tenure-track position in the Chemistry Department.

But after the university president talked to the Chemistry Department faculty, he said he wasn’t going to overrule the department and give her the job. The committee resigned in protest, she says.

Because the University of Minnesota failed to act, Rajender decided to take her report of discrimination outside. Part of her motivation was that some of the chemistry faculty and university administrators had started spreading lies about her. “That’s when I said, ‘No, they can’t get away with it,’ because they were smearing me.”

Rajender filed a complaint with the State of Minnesota, which said there was probable cause to find she was discriminated against but didn’t take any action. So she filed a complaint with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which suggested filing a lawsuit because the commission had such a long backlog of complaints.

She did, filing a lawsuit in 1973 in federal court in Minnesota. Soon, she decided to make it a class-action suit, partly because if she won, the university would have to pay her lawyers.

The trial didn’t start until several years later. And immediately, faculty and administrators who were called to testify began attacking her character. “Before, I was a good teacher. I was a good researcher. But after I filed the complaint, they had to come and testify. And they said I was the world’s worst teacher, the world’s worst researcher,” Rajender remembers.

This was where her meticulous notes came in. “I kept very close records of everything that happened to me: every little paper I got, every little letter, every little comment,” she says. So when one faculty member claimed that 150 students walked out of her class, Rajender was able to show notes from that day documenting how many students were missing, a number she noted for every class she taught. Further questioning of that faculty member showed that he wasn’t in the country at the time—he was in Germany on sabbatical, she says.

Another faculty member, whom she did research with, claimed her work wasn’t good enough to use in his publications. But Rajender was able to present lab notebooks and paper drafts showing she did contribute to the work he published. “They would make up anything to put me down,” she says.

With this strategic thinking about ways to counter the university’s arguments, Rajender “stood as a good model” for others demanding fair treatment by their universities, Kohlstedt says.

Other women at the University of Minnesota had encouraged her to fight the discrimination, but most didn’t want to testify, probably out of fear for their own careers, Rajender says. “Some of them who called themselves my friends, they did not come forward.”

Only one person among her colleagues in the Chemistry Department testified, she says. He agreed she was talented, but he would not confirm she had been discriminated against.

Kohlstedt says the fact that people wouldn’t testify “just shows how much she was willing to take risks and be brave and speak out—and suggests how much others recognize the risk involved and chose not to take that risk.”

After a trial that lasted 11 weeks, the judge ruled in Rajender’s favor. Initially, Rajender had asked for a tenure track position, but when the university didn’t renew her contract—and no other university would hire her—she got a law degree. She was already working as a lawyer by the time the case was settled.

Instead, she received $100,000, while her lawyers got more than $2 million, Rajender says. But the biggest impact was arguably on the university. Several of the people who lied during the trial were fired, Rajender says. Plus, the university was required to work to make salaries equitable for female employees, hire more women into faculty positions, and promote eligible women. The university made slow progress, though; Kohlstedt was working on these goals when she was an associate dean in the 1990s.

Equally important, the case “alerted the entire institution about gender issues,” Kohlstedt says. “It’s a heads-up to everybody everywhere, whether you’re the president or the provost or the dean, that these women are serious. We need to take them seriously.”

Initially, Rajender really missed chemistry, especially the “academic atmosphere,” but she has no regrets about becoming a lawyer. Rajender, who went on to write a book about her experience, says she is glad that her case helped women at the university and beyond, but she knows academics still face discrimination by university committees when it comes to hiring and promotion. “Now they are more covert about things,” she says.

Andrea Widener is a former senior correspondent at C&EN.


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