Legal

Academic fails to prove “fanciful” sexual discrimination and harassment allegations against Monash University

Kirsten Robb /

An engineering professor has failed to prove 53 claims of sexual discrimination and sexual harassment against her employer Monash University and some of its senior academic staff.

Dr Qizhi Chen had claimed the discrimination and harassment occurred over a period of five years between 2008 and 2013, when she was employed by the university as a senior lecturer and, later, an associate professor.

But the Federal Court dismissed the claims on February 27, finding Chen’s allegations to be unsubstantiated and “fanciful”.

Judge Richard Tracey found Chen had “engaged in a subjective reconstruction of innocent events” after failing to fulfil her professional ambitions.

Tracey went further to call Chen “a most unimpressive witness” who was “prone to giving long, unresponsive answers” to the court.

“She was over-willing to interpret events in a way which reflected badly on those against whom allegations were made. She saw no problem in telling ‘white lies’ in order to assist her case,” said Tracey in the judgment.

Chen’s allegations included that a male colleague had touched her breast whilst removing a microphone and had sexually inappropriate conversations with her, including saying “I like to see you happy” and “you can come to my office any time”.

Although the incidents dated back to 2008, Tracey noted Chen had only made the allegations after she failed to secure a promotion in 2011. Chen told the court she had not considered the events to be discriminatory or to constitute harassment when they occurred.

“It was only after the rejection of her promotion application in 2011 that she reviewed and reassessed what had previously occurred and placed a malign construction on these events,” Tracey said.

Chen told the court the decision not to promote her amounted to sexual discrimination because three of her male colleagues had been promoted ahead of her.

But having been presented with no supporting evidence for any of the claims, Tracey rejected all of Chen’s allegations. She was ordered to pay costs for the litigation.

Employment lawyer and M+K Lawyers partner Andrew Douglas told SmartCompany the case, which raises the same issues addressed in the recent landmark harassment ruling against TRUenergy, is an example of why employers should act at the first sign of conflict.

“This is another case where a person over a period of time has misconstrued the conduct of others and constructed in their own mind sexual harassment and discrimination,” says Douglas.

“These feelings commenced at a time when [Chen’s] desires and future prospects at work were frustrated. The judge found there was just no evidence to support it,” he says.

Douglas says the facts show Monash University had gone to incredible lengths to do the right thing but had failed to address the issue at the first sign of conflict.

“The lesson here is that it was far too late. The answer is to go back to the moment you see [someone] in pain… and respond immediately to try to resolve that pain,” he says.

Monash University released a statement to SmartCompany saying it is pleased the matter has now been finalised and welcomed the Federal Court judgment in support of the university and its academic staff.

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Kirsten Robb

Kirsten Robb is a former journalist at SmartCompany. Previously, she worked at News Corp as a property reporter for Leader Newspapers and the Herald Sun, and holds a Masters of Journalism at Melbourne University.

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