Robin Potera-Haskins

(WOMENSENEWS)–Robin Potera-Haskins has coached women’s high school and university basketball teams since 1984; she says she has always loved the work.

But she is not equally fond of Montana State University, a former employer. Shortly after she went to Montana in April 2001, Potera-Haskins began a three-year fight against a variety of practices that she saw as discriminatory.

Now, in light of recent Supreme Court decisions, she is on the leading edge of a wave of lawsuits that may give the high court another chance to rule on gender discrimination, as well as Title IX, the most significant law that makes the practice illegal at educational institutions.

She says cell phones and cars were given to male colleagues but not her, and that she earned significantly less than her male counterparts. In her final season in 2003–she was dismissed in February 2004–Potera-Haskins’ salary was $70,000, according to court documents, as compared to $90,000 for the coach of the men’s team.

The women’s teams had more funding struggles and Potera-Haskins was also pressured by an athletic director to accept his unqualified daughter onto the team and give her a scholarship.

"Bottom line is it remains difficult for women to get great chances in certain areas of athletics and academics," says 45-year-old Potera-Haskins. "Montana State’s treatment makes you feel, as a woman, that you are just not important enough to invest in to win, to succeed."

Filing a Title IX Case

In July 2005 Potera-Haskins filed a discrimination lawsuit under Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972, the landmark prohibition against sex-based discrimination in any education program or activity receiving federal funding.

Montana State shot back in court documents that Potera-Haskins’ time was marked by "complaints from team members and parents, and even fans, about (her) abrasive style, poor organization and general handling of the team."

Her case–supported by the Washington-based American Association of University Women’s Legal Advocacy Fund–is now in the beginning stages when both sides gather evidence and interview witnesses under oath, but without a judge present. The association is currently supporting more than a dozen cases and is the nation’s largest legal fund focused on sex discrimination.

Advocates for women such as Potera-Haskins say their Title IX cases could provide a crucial new testing period for the landmark law–which turns 35 this week–after a May 29 Supreme Court decision to limit wage discrimination claims under the civil rights provision of Title VII, upon which Title IX was modeled.

Jocelyn Samuels, vice president for education and employment for the Washington-based National Women’s Law Center, says the high court’s ruling could lead to a reconsideration of how courts interpret Title IX and the cases filed under it.

While employment discrimination cases could be brought under Title IX some courts have previously decided that employment discrimination cases should be brought under Title VII instead, Samuels says. In light of the May 29 decision, however, some circuits may choose to now hear such claims under Title IX. "Whether the ruling would lead to some reconsideration of this requirement remains to be seen," Samuels says.

Potera-Haskins says women only have a chance at equitable treatment if Title IX infringements are brought into the open.

"When you try to step forward, they try to destroy you, wreck your reputation, and that makes it hard for women to go public," says Potera-Haskins, now head coach of the Palm Beach Atlantic University Sailfish women’s basketball team in West Palm Beach, Fla. "But I felt that if I didn’t fight this, others would be forced to go through the same thing."

Three Challenges at Feather River

Similar prominent Title IX skirmishes are underway at Feather River Community College in Quincy, Calif., which currently faces three Title IX-related challenges.

In one case Laurel Wartluft is charging that the college infringed on her Title IX rights by retaliating against her inquiries into her job status and complaints of gender discrimination in the athletic department.

Hired as a part-time head coach of the women’s basketball team, she says she accepted the position in August 2004 on the college’s promises the position would be made full-time. In June 2005 the college offered her a full-time position, but rescinded the offer two months later, fired her and refused to pay her for the months she worked full time. Wartluft filed suit in November 2006 in state court and a trial date is tentatively set for January 2008.

Meanwhile, the school’s athletic director, Paul Thein, filed suit in August 2006 in U.S. district court alleging his efforts to bring the college in line with Title IX led to his termination. His case will be heard in two parts in July 2007 and January 2008.

Thein and another staff member, Michelle Jaureguito–who also filed suit against the college in November 2006–allege their terminations were forms of retaliation after a lengthy battle that ensued after the two reported a male colleague for supplying alcohol to underage drinkers and for inappropriate sexual advances.

The State University of New York at Buffalo could also help take the new legal temperature on Title IX.

There, economist Lynn Ilon is charging sex discrimination, pay inequity and retaliation for complaining about the improper sexual advances of a male colleague toward students. Ilon refused to withdraw her complaints and found her tenure application subsequently denied. Ilon filed suit in a New York state court in 2000 and attorneys are discussing the possibility of a settlement negotiation.

Charlene McMahon, a former assistant chemistry professor, filed suit against Wisconsin’s Carroll College in December 2003 for sex discrimination in the denial of tenure and retaliation. The evidence-gathering stage of McMahon’s case has ended but a trial date has yet to be set.

Related Bills in Congress

As these cases move ahead in a variety of courts Congress will simultaneously be considering new legislation that could tinker with the legal framework of sex discrimination.

The Paycheck Fairness Act, for instance, seeks to more strictly define acceptable reasons for pay differences, allow greater access to salary information permitting employees to know on a timely basis if they might be suffering a form of pay discrimination. The legislation–now being reviewed by a committee–would also extend time limits for filing claims, a key factor in the May 29 Title VII case that limited recovery to 180 days.

Women in the United States make 20 percent less than their male counterparts, the American Association of University Women found in research it released in April that also found the gap widens with the number of years people work.

"There’s always been the assumption if you get education, you will earn more and that’s true, but at the same time for women, education alone doesn’t overcome discrimination," says Lisa Maatz, director of public policy for the association. "Women are still judged, and penalized, on biased assumptions about their career goals, possibility of motherhood and care-giving."

Women hardly fare better in the politically determined quest for tenure.

While 58 percent of male professors are tenured, the percentage drops to 29 for women, according to data from the Washington-based American Association of University Professors. In a 2006 study of 1,400 institutions countrywide the group found that women make up 41 percent of faculty and their earnings lag by an average of $10,300 and $12,895 at public and private institutions respectively.

Juliette Terzieff is a freelance journalist based in Tampa, Fla., who has worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsweek, CNN International and the London Sunday Times during time spent in the Balkans, the Middle East and South Asia.


For more information:

American Association of University Women, Legal Advocacy Fund:

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