Eight years after being told to wear muumuus and stop rubbing her pregnant belly in front of men before eventually being kicked out of her graduate school program, a former Wayne State University student and Salvation Army intern won an $850,000 lawsuit yesterday against the people who discriminated against her.
It all started in 2007, when Tina Varlesi was a graduate student at Wayne State University, where she was pursuing social work coursework. As part of her studies, she spent her very last semester at the institution interning at the Salvation Army, and that was where things started to go terribly, horribly awry.
Varlesi was pregnant, and because of that, she was subjected to a slew of egregious questions about her marital status and comments about how men could “look but not touch.” The verbal harassment on its own would be enough to make any employee feel unsafe, but incredibly, it got much worse from there.
When she refused to quit, she was told to stop rubbing her pregnant belly (might as well ask the sun to not set) and was issued a directive to wear loose-fitting maternity clothes that would have made Betty Draper look like a low-rent lady of ill repute. The reason? Some of the men who utilized the Salvation Army’s addiction counseling services might be aroused by all that sexy abdomen caressing.
Her complaints were met with nonchalant dismissals, and eventually she was asked why she didn’t just drop out when she found out she was pregnant. The answer to that question would turn out to be inconsequential: She was given a failing grade for her last semester and was asked to leave the graduate program altogether.
This whole situation represents a major failure on the part of both Varlesi’s internship leaders and the school she was paying to attend, which presumably required and facilitated Varlesi’s internship experience. There was no one in this instance who was looking out for Varlesi’s best interests except for herself, which means that every step of the way, she was asked to continue to tolerate inexcusable behavior that, if it had occurred in a workplace and not an educational/internship atmosphere, would have easily been grounds for someone’s dismissal. And that someone should never have been the victim herself.
This experience from start to finish just sounds like one of those fictional and exaggerated scenarios often held up as examples of “what not to do” when employers attempt to train their employees in workplace harassment. They’re often dismissed as laughably absurd, a chapter of workplace harassment that belongs in 1977, not 2007, and one we all can be glad was closed decades ago. Clearly that’s not the case.
Women have the right to be in the workplace, and they have a right to be there while they’re pregnant. Academia isn’t a vacuum, and many students — male and female alike — continue on with their lives as they study, which often includes starting a family. In a lot of instances, that does require a pregnancy, and instead of treating Varlesi like she was somehow hoping to entice drug addicts into a den of gestational seduction, her employers should have been looking out for her.
Rather than policing women further during a point in their lives where every action, inaction and bit of food or drink is scrutinized and criticized, employers should be able to accept that a working pregnant woman isn’t some rare mythological beast that will go away if you ignore or harass it enough. It’s not an employer’s business whether or not a woman is married when she is pregnant or what she wears while she is, so long as she isn’t showing up to work in a bikini.
The energy expended on a pregnant employee or even intern should focus instead on two things: whether the employee is capable of doing her job and doing it well, and whether there any accommodations that need to be met in accordance with the law. Her personal life is no one’s business so long as it does not interfere with the work she does. Varlesi’s pregnancy intersected with her role only because her intern leaders kept pushing it inappropriately to the forefront.
They attempted to mask that with faux concern that the addicts Varlesi would be working with might take advantage of her belly rubs or maternity T-shirts… somehow. If that was ever a concern, it should have been to protect Varlesi’s personal safety by equipping her and the men with which she would be working with a strategy to do so. You don’t tell women to wear circus tents if you fear men will be enticed by them — you tell men that that isn’t appropriate.
Of course, Varlesi’s bosses didn’t do that, mostly because they seemed to be incapable of grasping the concept themselves. The courts agreed, and even though it took nearly a decade to get, Varlesi finally has the recourse she deserved back when she was pregnant and just trying to do her job.
Hopefully her willingness to speak up and stay the course will ensure that this won’t happen to another student.