On the walls of the Yale School of Medicine hang the portraits of previous deans and acclaimed scholars. They have one thing in common — all are male. Professor of immunobiology at the School of Medicine and chair of the Women’s Faculty Forum Paula Kavathas said she thinks the portraits are telling: They reflect a school where men wield power.
The allegations that have emerged about the mishandling of a sexual misconduct case involving Michael Simons, the former chief of the school’s cardiology department, and researcher Annarita Di Lorenzo have spurred discussions about the working environment for women at the school. But members of the community disagree about whether the School of Medicine is a hostile work environment for women.
Of 18 medical school faculty members interviewed, 11 expressed concerns about the environment, while seven said they felt the school was a completely safe place for women. Of nine faculty members in the cardiology department interviewed, five — all physicians — said their department was a hostile work environment in general, but especially for women. Researchers, however, defended the work environment under Simons.
Five female physicians working in cardiovascular medicine — some of whom said they experienced various forms of harassment at the hands of Simons — described the environment within the cardiology department under the former chair’s leadership as one in which bullying was rampant. All five asked to remain anonymous out of concern for their jobs.
“The mood of the entire [cardiology] section was fear, which kept many people silent,” one physician said.
Simons made labs inaccessible to certain people, dealt with promotions unfairly by favoring some and disfavoring others and gave critical assignments to those he favored regardless of merit, the five female physicians claimed. Though the bullying was not directed solely at women, those interviewed said that women felt the brunt of it.
While Simons admitted to erring in judgment, he denied being abusive in the workplace.
“Several years ago I briefly pursued a colleague who was in a junior but not subordinate position. For this error in judgment I have apologized, and I genuinely regret my action. However, in no way did I abuse my position at Yale to punish, or retaliate against any faculty member — a fact the Yale’s University-Wide Committee confirmed,” Simons wrote in an email to the News. “My professional decisions have always been based only on talent, merit and that which is in the best interest of Yale, its staff and students.”
Simons’ department is not the only one at the medical school to receive criticism in recent years for being a hostile work environment for women.
One cardiologist interviewed cited a 2006 case, in which Joseph Schlessinger, chair of pharmacology, was charged with sexual harassment. Schlessinger remains in his post.
Section chiefs within the medical school are lifetime positions, appointed by the department chair, and there is no process for review, she said.
Although Simons has stepped down from his position as chief of cardiology, he will remain director of the Yale Cardiovascular Research Center. One cardiologist interviewed noted that researchers are completely dependent upon their principal investigators to gain funding and advance in their careers, making them vulnerable to hostile leadership. The researchers may not have a support network through which they can relay their concerns, the cardiologist said.
Medical school professor Joan Steitz said that the hierarchy within the medical school leads to a lack of transparency among faculty members — junior faculty are completely left out of decisions made at the top. Faculty members have complained about the situation and asked that the administration be more open with them, but nothing has changed, she said.
“It’s clearly an extreme case, but it is reflective of the climate [at the medical school],” Steitz said of the Simons case. She added that there was a report on equity in faculty salaries, but that the report was never released.
All five cardiologists interviewed said they were most disheartened by the administration’s response, a sentiment they said was shared by two other female cardiologists. Over a year ago, they said, all seven women met to discuss next steps after Provost Benjamin Polak did not accept the University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct’s ruling to permanently remove Simons from his position as chief of cardiology. The cardiologists said that, even after meetings with high-level administrators in which the group urged that the recommendations of the UWC be acted upon, Simons did not step down. It was not until three days after The New York Times inquired about the case on Friday, Oct. 24, that the faculty received word of Simons stepping down.
Not all faculty members interviewed said the work environment within the department was hostile. All four cardiology researchers, working under Simons in the Yale Cardiovascular Research Center, said they felt the department was a safe work environment.
Cardiovascular researcher Kathleen Martin said the allegations that the School of Medicine is a hostile work environment for women is “the farthest thing from the truth.” She said she has never witnessed or experienced harassment and described Simons as a continually supportive mentor to women. Of the 11 people he hired over his five years at the helm of the department, five of them were women — an impressive statistic relative to other universities and departments, she added.
“Dr. Simons has created an outstanding working environment at the [Yale Cardiovascular Research Center] and has been very supportive of women scientists there,” professor of cardiology and cellular and molecular physiology Anne Eichmann said in an email. “I sincerely hope … that we will be able to turn this page as soon as possible.”
Daniella Tirziu, a research scientist in the cardiology department, said the details of the case should not have been made public because it has led to misinterpretations of a personal matter that has already been settled.
Medical school faculty were informed via email last Monday, Oct. 29, that Simons had stepped down from his post as chief of cardiology.