ST. JOHN’S, N.L. – A new report has found that a culture of bullying, harassment and sexism has been tolerated at Memorial University’s faculty of medicine in St. John’s, N.L., with some female students saying they were subject to remarks about their size, asked to get coffee for others and told they should stick to family practice.
Investigator Sandra LeFort, a professor emerita of the university’s school of nursing, took testimonials from 66 students, faculty and staff to assess the culture at the school and make recommendations.
Her report, dated May 1 but released Monday, included comments from students who said they witnessed or experienced sexist remarks, intimidation, harassment and gender bias from peers and physicians in the faculty.
“My overall impression of the culture of Memorial’s Faculty of Medicine is that it is generally a respectful environment and a good place to learn and work,” Lefort wrote.
“However, there is a culture of tolerance of disrespectful and harassing behaviour by some individuals in some areas. As well, there is concern about some gender-related issues.”
Postgraduate students said they were humiliated or shouted out at in work sessions, sworn at over the phone and subjected to “personal comments about race or body size.”
One raised the concern of “having to handle clinical situations beyond their skill set because the attending physician would not answer their phone or pager.”
A clinical clerk reported that she was told that a surgical career would be “too stressful for her,” because she “looked more like a family doctor” and “might be a ‘distraction’ in the operating room.”
There was also a reported undervaluing of family medicine from male faculty, with the suggestion that it was a practice suited for “part-timers especially women.”
Others reported that female clinical clerks were interrupted and talked over by faculty, and were sent to get coffee for others in the session.
LeFort noted that both men and women reported the perception of gender bias in the faculty, with men witnessing sexist incidents and women experiencing them.
The report also found that students were hesitant to report instances of bullying, and those who did go through official university channels did not believe any action had been taken.
Postgraduate students said they felt they had limited ability to report their concerns over fears of retaliation from faculty and peers, with Lefort writing that “the small medical community in Newfoundland and Labrador heightens these concerns for those who want to live and work in the province.”
Students reported that the instances made them feel like “no one has your back” in the faculty, while also negatively affecting their well-being.
Margaret Steele, dean of the faculty of medicine, requested the review last November after expressing concern over allegations of bullying and sexual harassment within the faculty.
Steele said in a statement that the school is already taking action to implement some of LeFort’s recommendations.
“We asked for the review and we are taking the recommendations very seriously,” Steele wrote.
Steele said the school has put “several measures in place,” including making students and staff more aware of resources, and reviewing professionalism practices and curriculum.
LeFort made 39 recommendations, including the establishment of an equity office and an independent equity officer to deal with harassment complaints. LeFort noted that most other Canadian medical schools have a similar position.
LeFort also recommended hiring more staff for the sexual harassment office, improving accessibility and transparency about reporting protocols, and having more workshops and discussions about professionalism and respect in the school’s programs.
She also mentioned specific concerns about younger staff members working in small units with little oversight, and urged the faculty to carefully review management of these units.
The review of the medical school’s culture comes on the heels of scrutiny by the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada.
The college issued a notice of intent last spring to withdraw accreditation at the school over allegations of intimidation involving faculty and students, giving the faculty two years to address the issues.
University spokesman David Sorensen told The Canadian Press last fall that the allegations prompting the review weren’t related to those raised by the college.