The XX Factor

Jury Awards Former University of Iowa Employee $1.43 Million in Gender Discrimination Suit

The University of Iowa campus in Iowa City.

Tony Webster/Wikimedia Commons

A former University of Iowa employee who sued over claims of gender and sexual-orientation discrimination won $1.43 million in damages last week for emotional distress and lost wages. Jane Meyer, 57, was the second highest-ranking official in the university’s athletics department until she was reassigned and eventually fired after protesting to her boss about what she saw as unequal treatment in the department.

The jury in Meyer’s case was compelled by her story. She was hired in 2001 as senior associate athletic director, but when a new supervisor took over in 2006, Meyer testified, he began undercutting her leadership and chipping away at her portfolio of duties. That boss, current athletic director Gary Barta, created a new position between his and Meyer’s in 2013 that included many of her responsibilities, but he refused to consider Meyer as a candidate. Instead, he hired a man and paid him $70,000 more per year than the $176,000 Meyer made.

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Around that time, the Des Moines Register reports, Barta also fired Meyer’s romantic partner, Tracey Griesbaum, from her 14-year post as the university’s field-hockey coach. He claimed that the coach had been verbally abusive to her players. (The university found that Griesbaum had committed no violations; she is now also suing the school for gender discrimination, alleging that male coaches are allowed to “yell, curse, threaten, throw things, [and] be ejected from games” while female coaches must be more demure and gentle with their athletes.) At a staff meeting and in a letter in late 2014, Meyer aired her grievances with Barta’s handling of the athletics department, including her belief that there was gender discrimination afoot. He almost immediately had her transferred out of the athletics department to an unrelated position, the funding for which expired last year, leaving Meyer without a job.

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An eight-person jury backed Meyer up on every one of her claims against the university: gender discrimination, sexual-orientation discrimination, retaliation, unequal pay, and violations against a whistleblower. The jury granted her $374,000 in back pay for lost wages and just over $1 million for emotional damages. Because the jury found that the university’s discrimination was “willful,” Meyer’s attorneys will be able to appeal to the judge to triple the back pay award. If the judge also compels the university to pay Meyer’s legal fees, her take could increase by about $2 million.

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The jury’s forewoman told the Iowa Gazette that the jury barely needed to discuss two or three of the counts Meyer leveled against the university because it seemed that “for sure, this happened.” The university’s defense, the juror continued, was full of “petty” excuses for firing Meyer, like a complaint that she didn’t let the wrestling coach have enough say in the wrestling facility’s renovation.

Meyer’s lawyers say she would like her job back, but only if she could do so “safely.” One attorney suggested that Barta may have to “leave” in order for her to regain satisfactory employment. The legal team also plans to ask the judge to look into whether Iowa’s athletics department has a systemic gender discrimination problem. If a potential multimillion-dollar lawsuit doesn’t force other university administrators to think twice before giving outspoken women on staff the shaft, the prospect of a lengthy, embarrassing investigation should do the trick.

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