Courtesy of Pamela Kunz

Women Leaders in Oncology, or WLO, named Dr. Pamela Kunz the 2021 Woman Oncologist of the Year during their annual Leadership Empowerment and Development conference on Oct. 1.  

Kunz serves as the director of the Center for Gastrointestinal Cancers at Smilow Cancer Hospital and of the Yale Cancer Center; she is also vice chief of diversity, equity, and inclusion in medical oncology at the Yale School of Medicine and holds many other appointments. WLO celebrated Kunz’s leadership and commitment towards creating a more respectful, diverse and inclusive culture in oncology.

“This [award] is especially meaningful, because I think it comes … at a really important point in a journey where I have personally experienced gender discrimination, made a pivot on a job change and have really found my own voice and become an advocate for gender equity,” Kunz said. “I’m incredibly passionate about this topic. I think that it is personally meaningful to me, but I also hope that what I’m doing around gender to promote gender equity and really broadly promote more diversity and inclusion in medicine is a really important legacy that I’ll leave.” 

Kunz noted that there are inequalities in medicine beyond the field of oncology. She noted that medicine has been predominated by white men and is organized in a hierarchical structure. For example, in most institutions, medical students wear short-length coats, whereas attending physicians wear longer white coats. Kunz said this hierarchy creates a power differential, which can lead to various forms of harassment and discrimination.

In her own career, Kunz said she has experienced injustice due to being a successful woman in her field. Kunz joined Yale after she left Stanford University in 2020 because of gender discrimination and microaggressions from male faculty, along with a lack of concrete action taken by the school to fix these issues. 

In the article, School of Medicine Dean Lloyd Minor told the Daily that the Stanford’s School of Medicine’s Office of Academic Affairs and the Office of Faculty Development and Diversity had sponsored workshops on gender discrimination. 

“I tried to be very deliberate about how I looked at my job search and how I evaluated institutions,” Kunz said. “I think it’s important to state that discrimination and harassment are everywhere. … I think Yale has had its own share of issues around this topic over the years. … In my talking with people, there was a lot of enthusiasm and an acknowledgement that we needed to make some changes, and so I wanted to really be part of that change.”

Since joining Yale, Kunz has continued advocating for DEI efforts. She said that the first step to doing so is raising awareness around gender discrimination and harassment alongside other forms of disrespect. Kunz also emphasized the need to accumulate data on gender disparities in salary, leadership roles, authorship and ability to lead clinical trials. She also highlighted the importance of taking that data and applying it toward practical solutions.

Kunz said she recognizes the privilege of being a white woman in conversations surrounding discrimination. She said that it is important to consider the intersection of race, gender identity, sexual orientation and age.

“I think that the culture of medicine, or the field of medicine, is more ready than ever to have some conversations around this,” said Kunz.

Kunz’s colleagues have commended her DEI efforts. She is known as a person of “enormous integrity and intellectual capacity,” Herbst said.

She spoke at this year’s Women in Medicine Summit on the topic of navigating toxic work environments.

“She’s quite involved in issues of equity, gender equity, and I’ve learned so much from her,” said Roy Herbst ’84 GRD ’84, Ensign professor of medicine and chief of medical oncology at the medical school. “We’ve done a number of programs for our female faculty, which I’m very proud of. The first thing was that I actually went last year to this meeting on the #HeForShe [movement] at Women in Medicine, and I was so amazed. I felt I was sensitive to these issues, but I had no idea of the microaggressions and ways that people could interact that could be offensive to any group. … As her chief, I got to tell you, I couldn’t be more proud of the person we have in our group.” 

Herbst said that attending such events have opened his eyes to the intersectionality between different groups.

According to Herbst, Kunz has set up a series of retreats alongside Tara Sanft and other female oncologists within their group for female leaders. They had one earlier this month in Madison, featuring coaches from the Center for Emotional Intelligence. 

“She was the female oncologist of the year. … I actually think [Kunz] would have been a great candidate for oncologist of the year — man, woman, no matter what,” Herbst said.

In addition, Kunz has played an important role in encouraging leaders to attend gender equity training. 

Her colleagues have noted a shift in the work environment since her arrival. 

“I think this particular award honors her voice in drawing attention to the inequities that women oncologists have faced,” Barbara Burtness, interim associate director for diversity, equity and inclusion at the Yale Cancer Center and professor of medicine at the School of Medicine, said. “I think what sets her apart is, first of all, her courage and speaking about her own story and second of all, the clarity with which she can present information that maybe not everyone in the academy has been so receptive to.”

According to Burtness, diversity is now on the agenda for section meetings at every faculty meeting, and grand rounds speakers are invited to address representation within science.

Kunz also noted the importance of mentorship, which she said helps inspire young women to go into science and medicine and encourages future generations to embrace being an advocate for change.

“She’s been a great mentor to me, not only connecting me with people who also cared deeply about the unique challenges of women in medicine, but also just helping me navigate through being a post-grad at Yale and med school,” said Bebe Thompson ’20, a clinical research associate at Yale Maternal-Fetal Medicine. “She epitomizes the importance of advocating for not only others in your field, but also for yourself. She takes initiative to do what she feels is right. … I also think it’s her ability to really empower people not only at her same level, but also under her trainees like me.”

Known by her mentees as a “wonderful listener” and as someone who “uplifts” those around her, Kunz inspires many through her advocacy for women in medicine. Her mentees cannot imagine anyone “more deserving of the award” than her, Thompson said.

“She’s been an inspiration to females, especially females in STEM,” her niece Avery Lee ’25 said. “At Stanford, she faced a lot of sexism, but she was still a leading pioneer in her field, and didn’t let any of that stop her. … You have to stick to what you believe in and put a lot of faith in yourself, and I would say that she’s the perfect person to look out for that.”

Kunz was selected for this award among 51 nominated women.

SOPHIE WANG