Rachel Lance, a biomedical engineer and assistant consulting professor in Duke’s Department of Anesthesiology, had raised concerns about pay disparities between her and her male colleagues for more than two years. She’d held lengthy meetings with department leaders, sent countless emails, and, in 2021, filed complaints both with Duke’s Office for Institutional Equity and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. And in response, she says, she’d faced harassment and retaliation.
Her former mentor, Richard Moon, an anesthesiologist at the Duke University School of Medicine and director of the school’s Center for Hyperbaric Medicine and Environmental Physiology, advised her in a February 2023 email “not to proceed with the complaints.” He wrote that she’d “poisoned any relationship that might have been possible” in the department, and likely cost herself opportunities in others, too.
“Persisting is only likely to harden everyone’s position and get yourself labeled as a troublemaker,” he added.
Their once-friendly relationship had frayed. Moon wanted Lance to do more work than she believed she was being paid for. She refused. On June 1, she says, he approached her desk and demanded that she come to his office immediately.
“Number one,” Moon began, “I’m not quite sure why all of a sudden you changed your attitude towards me with this sarcastic, aggressive tone of voice.” (Lance recorded the conversation and shared it with The Assembly.)
Lance told Moon she was frustrated that Duke was not “willing to pay me reasonably.”
“If you want to resign from Duke, that’s fine,” Moon responded. He told her she was a “very strong scientist” and said he agreed that department chair Joseph Mathew—their boss—had been “completely inappropriate” toward her.
But Moon dismissed Lance’s argument that her situation reflected systemic discrimination at Duke. Pay discrepancies might have a simple explanation, he said. “If a woman is going to have babies, gets involved, spends more time at home, whatever, it may not be possible for her to be as scientifically productive as the male who has a female at home taking care of that stuff.”
Lance, 39, does not have children.
Moon also insisted that he’d done everything he could do to help her. “If you think that I’m discriminating against women, that’s ridiculous,” he said.
“How many times have I asked you to stop telling me to drop my complaint?” Lance shot back.
“Look, frankly, I don’t care whether you keep your complaint,” Moon said. “I think it’s hurting you. It has hurt you. Because now you’re—I mean, take it or leave what I’m gonna say, but you’ve labeled yourself as a troublemaker.”
That meeting was “depressing,” Lance told The Assembly. “It was one of a few dozen signs that nobody at Duke cared about resolving problems of equality, only silencing them.”
Last week, Lance filed a federal lawsuit accusing Duke of violating the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Lance’s complaint alleges that Duke paid her 40 percent less than men with similar qualifications and retaliated against her when she complained.
Moon did not respond to requests for an interview. Mathew’s office said he was out of town. Spokespeople for Duke University and Duke Health declined to comment on Lance’s lawsuit.
This isn’t the first time Duke’s anesthesiology department has been accused of discrimination and retaliation. Nor is Lance alone in feeling like women at Duke are paid less than their counterparts: A study from the Duke Academic Council’s Faculty Compensation Committee, published in May and obtained by The Assembly, shows that as of 2022, the “salaries of women, particularly those of non-Hispanic white women, often lag behind those of other groups, at times markedly.”
“I deserve equal pay, but so does the next generation of women,” Lance said. “They might not change because of me. But if enough people stand up and talk about their story, then eventually, hopefully, it’ll become more difficult for them to suppress than to fix.”
Lance came to Duke as a doctoral student in 2011 after spending three years designing diving equipment for the U.S. Navy. She says she only applied to Duke; she wanted to use the medical school’s hyperbaric chamber to research the effects of extreme environments on the human body.
After completing her Ph.D. in 2016, Lance oversaw research projects at Duke and finished her first book, In the Waves, which recounted her effort to solve the mystery of the H.L. Hunley, a Confederate submarine that sank in 1864. She became known as an expert on explosions and underwater disasters, explaining to national audiences the science behind race car crashes, a fireball that ripped through Beirut, and, more recently, the doomed Titan submersible.
Moon, a frequent research partner, arranged for her to interview at Duke in 2019. The university offered her a faculty position, and Lance says she accepted on two conditions: She wanted to be listed as the “principal investigator” on her projects, and she could only work part-time to accommodate a disability that required several surgeries planned for the coming year. (She said she still suffers from chronic pain.)
Duke agreed, and Lance became the first female principal investigator in the Hyperbaric Center’s 50-year history. Her title was—and is—“assistant consulting professor,” which Mathew told her was the part-time equivalent of an assistant professor, according to her lawsuit.
Lance says Duke agreed to pay her $30,000 a year to work 10 hours per week, contingent on her securing funding for her research. The position did not offer benefits. The department’s full-time researchers—almost all men—were paid $100,000 a year, plus benefits. (Medical doctors like Moon are paid for clinical work in addition to research, Lance says.) Lance thought she was being paid at about the same rate as others in an equivalent position.
But Lance’s contract didn’t mention 10 hours a week. It said she’d work “less than 20 hours/week on average.” In her lawsuit, Lance says she was verbally assured she’d be paid for any extra hours she put in, though the department never put that in writing.
By the end of 2020, however, she says Mathew and others were assigning her tasks that required 20 hours of work a week, and sometimes more. But her pay didn’t increase. At first, Lance says she thought it was an accounting problem. But emails seeking a meeting to discuss her concerns—based on the hours she was working, she was being paid half what she was promised and, she believed, significantly less than men with similar backgrounds—were ignored for months, she says.
Finally, the department offered Lance a full-time position as a research scientist in May 2021. But she says the salary—$70,000—was still less than what her male peers earned. And the new position was considered staff, not faculty. She rejected what she considered a demotion.
According to Lance’s lawsuit, Mathew then told her he didn’t think she was a “legitimate” faculty member. The lawsuit doesn’t elaborate on his alleged comment. But in a July 2021 meeting, which Lance also recorded, Mathew told her that if she accepted the staff position—with a new proposed salary of $80,000—he would not rule out “the possibility” that she might become faculty again “down the road.”
Lance asked Duke’s Office for Institutional Equity to investigate her sex discrimination claims in August 2021, and informed the office that she also planned to take her case to the EEOC.
Two weeks later, Mathew sent her a letter offering her a choice to become either a full-time research scientist or keep her current position with a raise to $40,000. If she didn’t choose within two weeks, Duke would take it as a resignation.
Lance responded that she wouldn’t quit, but she wouldn’t accept a demotion, either. The parties have remained at an impasse over how many hours Lance’s part-time salary covers—though Duke gave her a raise to $40,000 on September 1, 2021, and a cost-of-living adjustment to $41,600 in 2022.
Lance filed a discrimination charge with the federal EEOC on October 25, 2021. Two days later, Duke’s Office for Institutional Equity told Lance that her allegations didn’t merit an internal university investigation. The office explained that “others with the Assistant Consulting Professor title are not paid for such appointments,” according to documents filed with the EEOC.
In a January 2022 response to Lance’s complaint, Duke told the EEOC that Lance “simply did not have the qualifications” of her better-paid male colleagues and argued that she was hired primarily as Moon’s assistant. (EEOC filings are confidential, but Lance shared documents from her case with The Assembly.)
“I am a mid-career, Ph.D.-level biomedical engineer,” Lance told the EEOC in response. “I am not now, nor have I ever been, employed as an assistant, and any claim so inconsistent with an employee’s qualification level should be regarded with inherent suspicion.”
In May, the EEOC granted Lance permission to sue Duke.
‘A Problem with Women’
Lance isn’t the only female scientist who has raised concerns about equal pay at Duke.
“Duke has a problem with women, no question,” Missy Cummings, a former Duke engineering professor and director of the university’s Humans and Autonomy Lab, told The Assembly in an interview.
When Duke hired her from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2013, Cummings was already a big name in her field. She’d been one of the Navy’s first female fighter pilots and was an aeronautics expert. At Duke, she specialized in autonomous technologies; President Joe Biden appointed her to a temporary post as senior adviser to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2021, over the objections of Elon Musk (she’d criticized Tesla’s autopilot system.)
Cummings expected to spend the rest of her career at Duke, but decamped to George Mason University last year over what she describes as systemic discrimination. Cummings says male engineering professors attempted to create an aeronautics center without her. She says she was later told that Duke paid her less than the men in her department.
“I kept asking to have my salary evaluated and just routinely was ignored,” Cummings said, but her complaint to the Office for Institutional Equity met with a cursory inquiry. “They compared my salary to everyone else’s in the university and said that I didn’t have anything to complain about, but they refused to compare my salary to the men in engineering.”
The last straw came when Duke tried to deny her a $30,000 bonus it owed her as part of her employment contract, she says. The university only backed down after she hired a lawyer and threatened litigation.
“I was one of their star performers,” Cummings said. “At every point, I was met with hostility, just rampant sexism, and, of course, this pay gap.”
The recent study released by Duke’s Faculty Compensation Committee suggests that gender disparities exist across the university.
As of 2022, men outnumbered women among Duke’s tenured and tenure-track positions at a two-to-one rate; slightly more non-tenure-track professors were women. Duke had more male than female tenured and tenure-track professors in every division except the School of Nursing.
The study used a model that accounted for faculty members’ field, experience, rank, and other factors. It found that white female and Asian female—as well as Asian male—tenure-track professors tend to earn less than their white male peers, and white female distinguished professors “have notably lower salaries” than white men with the same positions. Non-tenured female professors of all races tended to earn less than white male colleagues (the baseline against which other groups were measured).
Cummings said the only thing that surprised her about the pay equity study is that someone at Duke finally put into writing what she’d been saying for nearly a decade.
At George Mason, she said, “I got a 50 percent pay raise.”
Lance’s lawsuit alleges that since she filed her complaints, she’s experienced “harassing behavior and comments from Dr. Mathew and other members of the Department” and “hostile treatment by her supervisors and peers.”
The lawsuit also says Mathew prevented her from transferring to another department and tried to undercut a freelance writing contract Lance had with Duke’s Office of Research and Innovation.
Duke hasn’t responded in court, but the university told the EEOC in October 2022 that Lance “has not suffered any form of retaliation” and said she’s “eligible to apply for any posted positions at Duke, staff or faculty.” Duke also pledged its commitment to “maintaining a welcoming and fair workplace free of unlawful discrimination and harassment.”
Former Duke anesthesiologist Michael Shaughnessy painted a different portrait of the department in a 2018 federal lawsuit. Shaughnessy alleged that Mathew fired him after he “complained about the insensitive response and stubborn refusal to support those with mental health disabilities, and, additionally, the sex discrimination leveled against many female physicians.” Shaughnessy claimed that Duke then blocked him from seeking employment at other local hospitals.
Shaughnessy’s lawsuit recounts an incident in 2015 when a male hospital patient beat a female employee unconscious. According to the lawsuit, Mathew—who’d become chair a year earlier—discounted the incident because the employee was not sexually assaulted, and reprimanded a female anesthesiologist, Cheryl Jones, for warning other female employees about the assault.
The lawsuit says that a year later, after an anesthesiology resident who had been battling depression died by suicide, Mathew told the faculty that they “should not discuss these events at all because of his concern about the Department’s legal liability.” He also grew “very angry” at Jones for arguing that they should focus on how to avert future tragedies. The lawsuit alleges that Mathew prohibited Jones from organizing a candlelight vigil and forbade her from distributing copies of the book Physician Suicide Letters Answered to residents.
Jones told colleagues via email that a department official “had stolen these books from the anesthesia workroom where I had placed them on the shelf.” The book’s author later published that email on her blog. Jones went on disability leave and later resigned, a decision Shaughnessy’s lawsuit attributes to the “harassment and retaliation” she endured.
According to the lawsuit, Mathew called a faculty meeting, at which he “expressed his disdain for Dr. Jones.” He also blamed the resident’s death on a “drug problem.” Shaughnessy objected to those remarks.
A few weeks after the meeting, the lawsuit says, another department official told Shaughnessy that he should not “rile up the troops” and warned that Mathew might not renew his contract. In January 2017, Mathew told Shaughnessy he was no longer a good fit.
Duke’s court filings said Mathew had “received feedback” about Shaughnessy’s “lack of professionalism.” Three years after Shaughnessy was fired, a department vice chair also said he’d heard from “other faculty members” that Shaughnessy “was out drinking late at night” before shifts; a judge barred Duke from using his testimony.
Duke settled the lawsuit in November 2020. Shaughnessy told The Assembly he was not permitted to comment.
Reached by text message, Jones declined to be interviewed but said that everything in Shaughnessy’s complaint was “absolutely” true.
‘It’s Not a Bug’
Duke could pay Lance more if it wanted to—not only because the university has deep pockets, but because the government and nonprofit research funding she obtains covers her salary. In fact, Lance’s EEOC complaint argues that Duke is actually losing money by underpaying her.
Lance’s research proposals estimate the amount of time she and her colleagues will spend on a project, with her rate based on a 10-hour workweek. Duke then bills funding organizations based on each employee’s hourly rate. But because Duke believes Lance’s salary covers 20 hours a week, not 10, it bills for half of the salary outlined in Lance’s proposals, leaving project funds unspent, she says.
Project spreadsheets reviewed by The Assembly show that in 2020 and 2021, Lance led a study into the safety of full-face snorkel masks that had been linked to deaths in Hawaii. The project received $48,000 in funding from the Divers Alert Network, of which $26,000 was earmarked for salary and benefits.
But Duke ended the project with more than $26,000 unspent, including $6,000 it did not spend on salaries for six researchers. Duke billed just $2,802 for Lance’s labor.
Duke doesn’t benefit from coming in under budget. The university charges research funders an overhead fee of more than 60 percent of almost every dollar its projects spend, including salaries—but it can’t bill for overhead on funds it doesn’t spend.
For example, Duke charged about $36,000 in overhead on a three-year, $66,000 Office of Naval Research contract, the spreadsheets show. Lance earned $21,000 as that project’s co-investigator. (Duke also billed the government about $5,000 for benefits that Lance, a part-time employee, never received.) For every additional dollar Duke paid her, it could have charged the Office of Naval Research more in overhead.
“They have not provided me with any rationale, and I have asked many, many times,” Lance said in an interview. “I would love to know what they’re thinking. But we’re at the point now where there is no remaining explanation except sheer vitriol.”
As a woman in science, Lance says she’s accustomed to being slighted.
She felt it when she worked for the Navy—she says she quit in 2017 after she complained about unequal pay—and when she co-authored a paper showing that the crew of the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley died of pulmonary blast trauma. (That paper gave rise to her first book, published in 2020.)
“They attacked me,” she said. “They publicly asked people to essentially harass me.”
Lance felt it, too, when she picked up a side gig earlier this year with Duke’s Office of Research and Innovation, doing research for a series about the university’s “hidden figures”—scientists whose contributions were overlooked because they were women or people of color.
She’s already found an example that struck close to home. Chicita Culberson earned her Ph.D. in chemistry from Duke in 1959 and pioneered the use of thin-layer chromatography to identify the secondary products of lichen. Culberson, who died in March at age 91, was a senior research scientist at Duke—the same staff title Lance was offered—until she retired in 2010. Her husband, also a lichenologist, was a tenured professor.
“I’ve suddenly discovered the whole thing is hopeless,” Lance said. “It’s not a bug. It’s the system. This is their standard for dealing with women in science. That’s what it made me realize. And that was part of why I decided to file [the lawsuit]. I was like, oh, my God, I am not someone who fell through the cracks. This is their norm.”
Additional reporting by Chase Pellegrini de Paur and data analysis by Ren Larson.
Jeffrey Billman reports on politics and the law for The Assembly. He is the former editor-in-chief of INDY Week in Durham. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.