Scientist sues Utah startup, alleging she endured years of sexual banter and discrimination

Women who worked at DiscGenics kept coming to her with concerns about “inappropriate jokes and inappropriate comments,” scientist Lara Silverman said.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lara Silverman, a former lead scientist at the Salt Lake City startup DiscGenics, alleges that she dealt with sexual banter and discrimination from the CEO and management.

In a Utah work culture that was “a nightmare for women,” scientist Lara Silverman says, she was forced to listen to sexual banter from executives, shamed for her pregnancies and due to her gender, denied the title and pay she deserved.

She’s now suing DiscGenics, a Salt Lake City company engineering spinal disc cells as a potential injectable treatment for lower back pain.

DiscGenics might have had a more professional environment or been able to more effectively respond to complaints, Silverman believes, but for this — since its founding in 2007, DiscGenics has never had a female executive or a female board member.

She was disciplined last June after she repeatedly complained about harassment, according to her federal lawsuit, and the chief operations officer accused her of doing it as part of “a lobbying effort” for a promotion.

“We’ve lost five women in six months. I just want to bring a woman to a leadership position, hire somebody else then. I don’t care,” Silverman responded, according to the suit. “The point is to get a different voice at the top. So we don’t keep losing women and they don’t keep coming to me with these concerns about inappropriate jokes and inappropriate comments.”

The lack of gender diversity in company leadership and boards in Utah, and especially in tech, has been highlighted by researchers and others concerned by the state’s perennial low ranking for the status of women.

And Silverman’s case is raising another issue that has been a target of reform in the tech industry — company policies that force sexual harassment claims out of public courts and into secret resolutions in arbitration.

In a statement, DiscGenics said it denies and will “vigorously fight” the discrimination and retaliation claims made by Silverman and DiscGenics’ former chief financial officer, Jeffrey Poole.

Silverman and Poole first filed their allegations with the Utah Antidiscrimination and Labor Division, a step required by state law before suing. Investigators decided there was “insufficient evidence” to find the company had violated the law, DiscGenics pointed out.

Here’s what Silverman and Poole said they experienced at DiscGenics.

Motherhood meant ‘second class’

DiscGenics was founded by infamous neurosurgeon Christopher Duntsch, accused of maiming 33 patients during spinal surgeries; two died. He is serving a life sentence in connection with one woman’s injuries, and his case was dramatized in a recent Wondery podcast and a 2021 TV series, both called “Dr. Death.”

Silverman joined the company in 2011 “fresh out of my Ph.D.” program at the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied medical engineering, she said in an interview. She replaced Duntsch, who was chief science officer, she said, but she never received that title.

She recognized the first major cultural issues at the company, she said, when she became pregnant with her first child in 2014.

CEO Flagg Flanagan’s comments “made it crystal clear that as a woman, as a mother … my contributions were always going to be questioned and I was always going to be second class,” said Silverman, who is now a consultant.

According to the lawsuit:

• At a companywide meeting, Flanagan pointed to Silverman’s stomach “with a grimace” and asked, “How is she going to do her job now?” He continued to make “snide remarks” about her pregnancy, the suit said, leaving her scared for her job and later convincing her to return to work part-time two weeks after giving birth.

• Silverman was not provided with a lactation space and was forced to pump breast milk in closets and restrooms.

• During Silverman’s second pregnancy, Flanagan told her he was going to set up a “transition plan” for her to leave because she “now had two children” and therefore, he “assumed [she] would no longer be able to do her job.” She objected and stayed.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lara Silverman, a former lead scientist at the startup DiscGenics, alleges she dealt with sexual banter and discrimination from the CEO and management. She has sued the company with Jeffrey Poole, its former chief financial officer; they alleged the company retaliated against them for complaining about misconduct.

• After Poole was hired, Flanagan told him Silverman had gone “bat s--- crazy” from her hormones when she was pregnant.

‘Locker room banter’

When Silverman began at DiscGenics, it was sharing space with the University of Utah’s Cell Therapy and Regenerative Medicine (CTRM) facility.

In the office, Flanagan and Chief Operating Officer Bob Wynalek discussed women they considered sexually attractive and made sexually charged comments to employees; Flanagan often described his sex life, the lawsuit alleges. Flanagan also routinely referred to women as “girls,” it said.

The suit alleges that, based on his behavior, CTRM required DiscGenics staff to complete an online training on professionalism and sexual harassment. Flanagan continued to make “sexual and misogynist remarks” after the company moved to a new facility in 2019, the lawsuit said.

Among other examples in the suit, she said a female employee came to her in tears in January 2021 and “stated that she was distraught after Flanagan made a joke about oral sex in a meeting. … and she was scared to be in the same room as Flanagan moving forward.”

Silverman said she encouraged employees not to hang around after meetings, or “go the long way” to avoid the CEO’s office.

Poole began working as the company’s CFO in August 2020 and later added human resources duties. The lawsuit said Poole soon saw the environment as sexist, and lists comments he alleges he heard from Flanagan.

Poole and Silverman also allege Flanagan misrepresented the timeline for DiscGenics to begin selling products and other issues to investors. The two say they eventually reached out to board members about Flanagan, but then faced retaliation, such as reduced job duties.

Poole was fired on June 4, 2021, and Silverman resigned about three weeks later, one of 11 women to leave the company between November 2020 and November 2021, according to the lawsuit. The women represented nearly one-third of DiscGenics’ staff, and approximately 65% of the women it employed, the suit said.

DiscGenics’ response

About a week before her resignation, Silverman received a letter from Flanagan promising to change his behavior, the suit said. Among its excerpts:

• “I may have engaged in locker room banter from time to time,” Flanagan wrote, “and in doing so, I may have caused some employees to feel uncomfortable. I assure you, and will assure others as appropriate, that such discussions will not occur again.”

• Flanagan denied most of Silverman’s specific allegations, but acknowledged “over the course of ten years I did tell some inappropriate jokes,” adding he didn’t “realize that Lara was offended by occasional sexual banter.”

• Flanagan admitted he “often referred to women as ‘girls’, and ha[d] not always appreciated that using that term might be offensive to some women,” but he was “resolved not to do that again.”

However, Flanagan emphasized that he “never actually discriminated against any female employee in terms of promotions, compensation, or professional opportunities,” never “touched a female employee inappropriately,” and said “nothing I have done could possibly be characterized as legally actionable sexual harassment.”

The company “adamantly denies that it has discriminated against Silverman and Poole,” said Michael Stanger, an attorney with Strong & Hanni, the firm representing DiscGenics. And DiscGenics “disputes large portions of the factual narrative set forth in the complaint” and in media coverage, he said.

DiscGenics has asked to move the case to private arbitration “consistent with the agreements signed by both Silverman and Poole during their employment,” Stanger said, adding that “arbitration is generally viewed as a quicker, less expensive view of dispute resolution.”

But Silverman and Poole point to a new law — the Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act — to oppose the move, arguing Congress intended to “end the practice of burying sexual-harassment claims ‘in the basement of arbitration.’”

The judge has not yet considered whether the act applies to the case.

Change may be uniquely challenging in regenerative medicine, orthopedics and similar sectors, Silverman said, because projects take years or even decades, and it’s harder for people to hop between companies.

There’s still a culture around science that expects “you put your head down and you make it work,” she said, “and that is destructive and counterproductive.”

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism. Former Tribune reporter Becky Jacobs contributed to this report.

Leto Sapunar is a Report for America corps member covering business accountability and sustainability for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.