The moment Stephanie Jenkins heard the camera shutter click from behind as she bent down, she knew she wasn’t being treated as a scientist. Rather, she felt the sole companion on her research trip — who oversaw the project — viewed her as a sex object.
This was the opening statement her lawyer, Joe Larson, made in a federal sexual harassment case Monday in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis.
Jenkins, a former University of Minnesota Ph.D. candidate, is suing the university, alleging a hostile work environment, and Ted Swem, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee who was working on the research project, for sexual harassment.
Jenkins claims Swem sexually harassed her during a research trip to study peregrine falcons in Alaska in 2011, including taking a picture of her behind and then commenting on “the scenery,” according to court briefs. On rafting trips in the wilderness, Jenkins claims Swen told sexually explicit jokes, recounted sexual encounters and told her he wanted a romantic relationship with her.
After the behavior continued in a shared office the following semester, she stopped working from the office and consulted her academic supervisor, but she was not informed of any available resources, Jenkins alleges in court documents.
Instead, she continually was told that she needed to work with Swem, documents allege. Jenkins sought help from the university’s ombudsman, who referred her to the university’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action.
Still, a week after meeting with the EOAA, Jenkins resigned from the university on Jan. 27, 2012, citing “unresolved workplace and ethical issues relating to [her] research project,” according to court filings. “Understanding that she would have no option but to work with Swem, and with her mental health and academic career in jeopardy, Jenkins felt she had no other choice but to resign,” Jenkins’ trial brief says.
Timothy Pramas, senior associate general counsel for the university, said in opening statements Monday that the university should not be held liable because Swem was working for the federal wildlife service — rather than the university — and because she did not report problems to the university until November, after which she admitted she had not been harassed.
In addition, Pramas claimed that Jenkins’ academic adviser tried to find working situations that would make her feel more comfortable. The next workday after she reported the harassment, he found her a new office space, Pramas said. Though the space had issues that delayed her from moving in, “there was never an expectation” that she had to work with Swem alone.
Swem’s lawyer, Thomas Hayes, focused on the fact that his client never touched Jenkins. Hayes also argued that Swem continued to bring up romantic interest in Jenkins — despite her repeatedly telling him she was not interested — because of “mixed signals,” such as laughing at his jokes.
The trial is expected to last about five days.