UC Berkeley IT worker accuses campus of gender discrimination

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Sabotage, retaliation and dismissal are just a few of the reports of gender-based workplace discrimination and harassment recently brought forth against UC Berkeley’s Information Services and Technology, or IT, department.

Vanessa Kaskiris, former senior technical project manager of the campus Endpoint Engineering and Infrastructure, or EEI, team, filed a complaint with the Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination, or OPHD, about late February or early March 2016 requesting an investigation into gender discrimination in the workplace, as first reported by Pando.

OPHD compiled a report detailing instances of alleged gender discrimination, including “disparate mentoring, the assignment of projects, isolation, undermining, and explaining away the departures of women.”

Kaskiris said she filed 16 counts of discrimination and/or harassment, which were supported by documentation, emails, meetings, budget numbers and salary inquiries. Of the 16 complaints, the OPHD reported one finding — a hostile work environment on the basis of sex.

EEI manages infrastructure and builds automation tools that are used across campus. Kaskiris alleged that much of the behavior came from then-team manager Ben Gross and then-systems administrator Riff Khan, who would keep information from her on projects and withhold access to repositories necessary for the team’s projects.

“They were the key power-holders on the team, and going against them would result in extreme retaliation,” Kaskiris said. “Other (male) members of the team were aware of what was happening, but they did not feel empowered and didn’t feel in a position to oppose it.”

Zoey Lin, an employee who had worked on the EEI team prior to Kaskiris’ arrival, expressed a similar sentiment. She recounted the difficulty getting permissions — clearances or access levels granted to users for reading, writing and erasing files — as “a pattern” with the women and men in the office, alleging that although reasonable excuses were given for denying the women access, the same excuses were not presented to the men.

Lin said she spoke with a campus human resources, or HR, department regarding the incident, as well as with Gross, but nothing came of the complaints. She alleged that Gross minimized her complaints and called her “aggressive.”

“Our experiences were profoundly similar, and we were on the team at different points in time over a five-year period,” Kaskiris said in reference to Lin. “That’s when I knew for certain that (the department) had been covering up … what they had been doing for years.”

The campus policy for Nondiscrimination in Employment, called PPSM-12, states that the policy of the University of California is to not engage in discrimination against, or harassment of, any person employed based on sex or gender. In instances of alleged gender discrimination, an investigation report is provided to the department manager responsible for discipline, according to campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore.

The general process is for the manager to then consult with HR and decide what corrective action, if any, needs to be taken, said Gilmore, though she added that she could not comment on confidential personnel matters. The policy prohibits retaliation against any employee or person assisting with a complaint of discrimination or harassment.

This policy was not followed, according to Kaskiris. She said that after filing the complaint in spring 2016, she was removed from the building where Gross and Khan worked and instead placed in Student Information Systems, or SIS, a student technology project responsible for updating and consolidating student information.

After filing, Kaskiris said Gross, her supervisor at the time, refused to meet with her for one-on-one meetings, citing time conflicts.

“They sent me to SIS. I said that this has nothing to do with the work I do — this is retaliation,” Kaskiris said. “You’re sending me away because I was vocal about harassment.”

Kaskiris also claimed her position was terminated five days after receiving the results of the OPHD report in September 2016. In a meeting with Liz Marsh, director of strategic initiatives and chief of staff for the campus Office of the Chief Information Officer, Kaskiris was told her employment termination was due to budget cuts.

During the meeting, Marsh confirmed that she had read the report, and according to Kaskiris, Marsh reaffirmed that Kaskiris’ position was terminated.

Gross and Khan remained at the company for more than a year after the results of the OPHD investigation were released, according to Kaskiris, before moving to jobs at Coinbase and Palantir Technologies, respectively. Coinbase, a digital currency company headquartered in San Francisco and Gross’ current employer, declined to comment on the issue.

Kaskiris is currently re-employed by UC Berkeley and works for Educational Technology Services as a senior technical project manager.

Contact Elena Aguirre at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @eaguirreDC.

A previous version of this article incorrectly omitted attribution to Pando as the publication that first reported the story.