‘Destroyed my career’: Faculty report unchecked sexual harassment in School of Medicine

June 10, 2020, 4:50 p.m.

Several female School of Medicine faculty blame a culture of sexual harassment and sexism for what they say is an inadequate University response to allegations ranging from inappropriate touching to inaccurate, career-undermining rumors. 

As a result, professors have considered leaving or have left Stanford. Associate professor of medicine Pamela Kunz left Stanford for Yale on May 15 due to microaggressions she said she had experienced that had caused “significant barriers” to her success. 

Their reports of widespread harassment are in line with survey results. A 2018 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) report found a majority of women faculty and staff in academia have experienced sexual harassing conduct, with harassment especially common in medicine. A Stanford survey of faculty in January 2019 found that 21% of female faculty had experienced “offensive, objectifying or discriminatory behavior” due to their gender.

NASEM categorizes gender-based harassment, unwanted sexual attention and sexual coercion as falling under the umbrella of sexual harassment. The report noted that gender-based harassment — behaviors that indicate women “do not belong or do not merit respect” — is the most common type of sexual harassment.

School of Medicine Dean Lloyd Minor wrote in a statement to The Daily that “Stanford Medicine is dedicated to an environment that is free of sexual harassment and discrimination.” The school has “robust policies” to address such issues, he wrote: “When any violation of any of these policies occurs, our leadership, in collaboration with University leadership, takes immediate action to fully investigate and respond accordingly.”

This is not the first time School of Medicine professors have been accused of sexual harassment or violence. 

Former Medical Center professor Jose Montoya was fired in June 2019 following “multiple violations of the University’s conduct policies,” according to Stanford Medicine. According to former members of the Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS) Initiative, which Montoya led before being fired, those violations were sexual harassment and sexual misconduct.

Former cardiology professor and Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital cardiology chief John Giacomini was indicted by federal authorities in May on a charge of abusive sexual conduct that had taken place at the VA hospital, including “repeated behaviors of sexually harassing nature,” according to documents obtained by The Daily.

“Stanford has struggled with this for years, decades,” Kunz said, citing a book by former neurosurgery professor Frances Conley M.D. ’66.

That book, “Walking Out on the Boys,” documented Conley’s 1991 resignation following sexism and harassment at the School of Medicine. Conley, the first woman to be granted a tenured professorship in neurosurgery at a medical school, later rescinded her resignation to promote procedures at Stanford to address sexism.

Provost Persis Drell wrote in a statement to The Daily that sexual harassment is present at Stanford at “unacceptable levels,” but that progress on the issue would be slow.

“The culture change that will be necessary to successfully address this challenge will not come quickly or easily, and it will take a commitment on the part of many individuals throughout this institution,” Drell wrote. “I see that commitment in the leaders of the School of Medicine, and I applaud them for their efforts while still acknowledging that they, and we, have a very long way to go.”

Gender equity expert and School of Medicine scholar in residence Arghavan Salles said that while instances of harassment in medicine had shifted from overt to subtle comments since events described in Conley’s book, she did not think the “core attitudes” had changed. 

Sexual harassment is particularly common in medicine, according to a report produced by NASEM, which found that more than 50% of women faculty and staff encounter or experience sexual harassing conduct in academia.

The field of medicine faces challenges around gender discrimination, Salles said. In part, medicine’s hierarchal nature and predominantly male leadership creates a power differential that enables sexual harassment. Although women outnumber men in medical school enrollment, women make up only 14% of department chairs and other senior leadership positions in medical schools, according to Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) data from 2018.

Minor wrote that 40% of Stanford’s department chairs are women, the third-highest of any medical school in the United States.

Salles said the field of medicine had also developed a tolerance for harassment. 

“These things happen every single day,” Salles said. “If we fight every single thing that happens, we can’t get any work done. We’ve become numb to that level of harassment.”

Faculty report harassment, inaction

Kunz, who has been at Stanford since 2001, said she had not experienced gender discrimination until she assumed leadership roles, and gained some degree of success — and became perceived as a threat by some male colleagues. 

At that point, she said, she began experiencing subtle retaliation and microaggressions from male faculty, ranging from public put-downs to exclusion from research collaborations. In one instance, Kunz said an older male mentor said at a meeting after being asked a question, “I’m going to let Pam answer first so that I can correct her.”

“I confronted him and said I didn’t like how he was treating me,” Kunz said. “He said I was being disrespectful.”

Kunz said she raised concerns with division and departmental leadership, as well as the dean’s office. Minor declined to confirm this, writing that the School of Medicine could not provide public comment on confidential reports brought forth by individuals.

Kunz said that while many were sympathetic, she felt that very little concrete action was taken, including on her request for the School of Medicine to host transparent forums where faculty could talk about such issues. She also said an investigation was launched in response to her concerns but was eventually dropped. Kunz cited a “culture of disrespect” as a primary problem. 

“Nothing concrete was done,” she said. “There were no specific consequences to any of the perpetrators.”

Minor declined to confirm whether the School of Medicine had turned down a request to host such a forum, writing that the School of Medicine’s Office of Academic Affairs and Office of Faculty Development and Diversity have sponsored gatherings focused on leadership training opportunities, workshops on gender discrimination and the Women Faculty Networking Group.

A second School of Medicine professor said she had been “strung along” about a leadership position for years. She did not receive clarity from her department chair about when he would make a final decision about the position, a problem as she had to decide whether to continue juggling other leadership positions with that role. Multiple faculty were granted anonymity due to concerns about retaliation from the School of Medicine.

Three current and former faculty in the School of Medicine said the second professor had told them about the alleged harassment as it had unfolded. These faculty were not named to protect the identity of the professor.

“I felt like he was doing this because I was a woman,” the professor said. “It was kind of like a control thing.”

After her department chair found out she had confidentially reached out to someone in leadership for advice, he immediately removed her from her leadership position, she said. This came as a complete surprise, she added, since he had told her she was doing a good job.

The professor reached out to an ombudsperson, who she said told her to consider leaving the University if she was not happy. The professor said she then reached out to a lawyer, who told her that she had met with over 40 women at Stanford with concerns about harassment and discrimination. The lawyer recommended that the professor not take legal action against the University because it was so difficult.

Ombudsperson James Laflin said that, due to the confidential nature of the Office of the Ombuds, ombudspeople would not be able to comment on conversations that had taken place. 

The lawyer did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Daily and was left anonymous to protect the identity of the source.

The professor said several other colleagues who had filed lawsuits as well told her it was a “soul-crushing experience,” and they would not go through it again. “Stanford has so much money that they’ll pay lawyers forever to fight you,” she recalled being told.  

In response to criticism that faculty believe hiring a lawyer is the only way to have their complaints taken seriously, Minor wrote that Stanford Medicine investigates and responds to violations of policy.

“Everyone at the School of Medicine has a duty to take such complaints seriously, and to take appropriate action to advocate for anyone who may be experiencing sexual or gender mistreatment,” Minor wrote.

The NASEM report further found that only 25% of targets file formal reports with their employer, and an even smaller fraction take their claims to court. The report states that women who had chosen to formally report or speak out often also recounted “negative, long-term impacts” on their careers.

The professor decided to stay in the hopes of outlasting her department chair and continuing to work on programs she had built at the University. But the negative and aggressive behavior from the department chair continued. 

“Every chance he had, he did all these things to prove he was in power,” she said. “Whenever he saw me, he’d make a big point of hugging me and touching me and clearly would do it multiple times in a way to make me feel like he was the one in power.”  

Such abuses of power lie at the heart of harassment, according to Salles, who said sexual harassment is not about “sexuality and attraction.” She instead described harassment as an expression of power, giving the example of a supervisor commenting on a woman’s outfit in the workplace. 

“They’re asserting that person’s right to comment on her appearance, despite that it has nothing to do with her job performance,” Salles said. “It’s saying, ‘I have the ability to judge you.’”

A third School of Medicine professor said that when she arrived at Stanford in a leadership role, there were tensions between her and a male professor she had worked with prior to arriving at the University. When she was promoted to his direct supervisor and had to discipline him for unprofessional behavior in the workplace, tensions only increased, she said.

“He didn’t like that feeling of being told, especially by a woman, that his behavior was not okay,” she said.

To her surprise, she said she was “unceremoniously” removed from her leadership role, without explanation, within a few years of her arrival. She said that faculty told her the male professor had spread rumors that she had been fired from her previous position at another institution, which another faculty member said he had witnessed in an interview with The Daily. Another professor at a different institution said she had also witnessed the male professor spread negative rumors about the professor’s leadership abilities after she had been removed from the leadership role. The professor’s previous institution confirmed with The Daily that she had not been fired and had in fact been promoted a few months before leaving.

The professor said she worried that the rumor had spread beyond the University when she was not invited to serve on national committees, leading her to approach her supervisor to launch an investigation. While her complaint was escalated to two progressively higher levels of University leadership, according to emails provided to The Daily, she said she has not heard anything more about it nine months later. 

“It’s a really ugly and terrible thing. I have worked my whole career to gain my reputation as a colleague, as a researcher, as a human being,” she said. “This rumor that was spread destroyed my career.”

Law professor and activist Michele Dauber said Stanford’s sexual harassment policies for faculty are confusing, making it difficult for faculty to to report an incident and to follow up on an investigation once it is underway.

“All these people get dissuaded from reporting and routed into these various sorts of dead-end cul de sacs,” Dauber said. “And that is causing serious sexual predators to thrive.”

“It is imperative that these policies be reformed and management reorganized or we will continue to lose talented female faculty,” Dauber wrote in a later statement to The Daily. 

Minor wrote that the School of Medicine follows the reporting process set by the University and that individuals can report to the Sexual Harassment Policy Office, a sexual harassment advisor or anyone in the School of Medicine.

“There is no wrong way to report,” Minor wrote.

The third professor said she nearly left Stanford as a result, even applying for and being offered jobs at other institutions. In the end, she decided to stay for the benefit of her family. At one time, she considered hiring a lawyer to continue the investigation.

“All [Stanford] responds to is the threat of legal action,” she said.

A fourth School of Medicine professor said that when arriving at Stanford from another institution, she immediately felt a difference in workplace culture. At Stanford, she said she was treated differently than her male counterparts when it came to opportunities for advancement and interpersonal interactions.

She said that, although she had raised her concerns to various people in leadership positions, raising concerns did not come without ramifications.

“You’re going to be perceived as difficult to work with, uncooperative,” she said. “There’s definitely going to be consequences, making it challenging for women to speak out and stand up for themselves.”

Salles said it was common for targets to be deterred from making official reports due to the potential consequences. Despite anti-retaliation laws, she said, those who made a report would find it difficult to continue to work in the same department or institution as their harasser. 

“There’s not much reward for reporting,” Salles said. “Nobody wants their career to be endangered.”

In response to a question about negative consequences to reporting, Minor wrote that “Stanford Medicine has robust policies in place to ensure the fair and respectful treatment of employees.”

The fourth professor said that while she had considered leaving Stanford as a result of her experiences, she did not view leaving as an option because her family is settled into the area.

As she advances in her career and in more leadership roles, the professor said, she is actively advocating for junior faculty, pushing for women to be put forth for nominations and publicizing opportunities in the School of Medicine. She said other faculty had approached her with concerns about being passed over for positions or being left out of important conversations and speaker series. 

“It’s a part of leadership’s duty to listen to our faculty and staff particularly if they are non-male, and to be receptive to their experience rather than questioning whether they are actually experiencing discrimination or bias,” she said. 

The professor said elevating women to leadership roles in the School of Medicine could also give other women more opportunities to find advocates for themselves.

“Female leaders have an understanding of what women have gone through,” she said. “I have found a lot of sympathy and empathy.”

Minor wrote that while the School of Medicine has promoted gender diversity on committees and in hiring, the school “recognize[s] that more work needs to be done to improve gender diversity at the executive level and across the institution and we are firmly committed to this goal.”

“The School of Medicine has focused on creating and developing systems of support that will achieve meaningful, lasting improvements and opportunities for women in medicine, especially at Stanford,” Minor wrote.

Other faculty said promoting women to positions of leadership would only help if the women promoted were committed and had the ability to elevate other women. 

According to the professor who said a male professor had spread inaccurate rumors about her, what most bothered her about the incident was that several of the leaders who “failed to respond” to the complaint were women.

“They don’t want to rock the boat,” she said. “They don’t want to change the system. They got where they got because they looked the other way when men did things like this.”

“When you have women in leadership roles who don’t want to change the status quo, the place is never going to change,” she added. “And until the University realizes they need to promote women who have a different philosophy about how these things ought to be addressed, the culture here will not change.”

Salles said the behavior that professor described could be a manifestation of “queen bee syndrome,” where women in male-dominated fields gain leadership roles by aligning themselves with other men, in turn leading them to shun women once in leadership roles.  Salles noted that women acting in such a way did not necessarily indicate that they do not want to support other women but are instead in an environment that does not allow it.

School of Medicine Senior Associate Dean for Faculty Development and Diversity Yvonne Maldonado wrote in a statement to The Daily that she believes “female leadership and all leadership at the School of Medicine are strong proponents of gender equity and equity for all groups.”

In addition to more women in leadership roles, Kunz said she wants to see greater discussion on the subject and tracking of harassment and discrimination metrics. Kunz said men also need to be part of the solution in supporting women and amplifying the message of gender equity.

Minor wrote that the School of Medicine has “engaged an external firm” to provide department-wide diversity, inclusion, gender equity and unconscious bias training.

Until then, the interviewed faculty said they would continue to promote communication between faculty with similar experiences to build solidarity and understanding.

“It’s only when you talk to one person and talk to someone else that you realize there are a lot of women who have been in this position,” said the professor who reported being “strung along” for a leadership position. “You’re not crazy, this place is crazy.”

This article has been corrected to accurately spell Frances Conley’s first name with an “e” not an “i.” The Daily regrets this error. This article has also been updated to clarify that the misconduct Giacomini was charged took place at the VA hospital.

Kate Selig served as the Vol. 260 editor in chief. Contact her at kselig 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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