An anonymous group of women that included faculty and medical residents warned top University of Maryland, Baltimore officials in January that prominent surgeons had inappropriate sexual relationships with subordinates and created a “hostile work environment” in the medical school and its affiliated hospital.
The women wrote a letter on Jan. 7 to UMB President Jay A. Perman, School of Medicine Dean E. Albert Reece and other leaders that described a culture in which it was believed that women would get ahead if they slept with certain surgeons.
“We don't understand why you continue to promote men who abuse their power, fuel a culture of inequality, and further extend a work environment of hostility,” the women wrote in the letter, which was obtained by The Baltimore Sun on Wednesday. They signed it #TimesUp, #MeToo.
University spokesman Alex Likowski said the university responded to the allegations swiftly.
“Very soon after the anonymous letter containing perceptions, rumors and allegations was delivered to UMB and UMMC leadership, they convened and immediately took action,” Likowski said in a statement. “They committed not only to investigate the allegations, but to go beyond them, taking a deep and broad look at the culture and climate of our teams — and to improve them.”
The university hired an outside party to investigate the claims, he said. “There was no evidence that any policies had been violated.”
The anonymous letter was sent roughly eight months before Dr. Carly Goldstein, a 31-year-old former research coordinator, filed suit against the university alleging she was sexually harassed by a vascular surgeon and professor, Dr. Robert Crawford.
She claims in her suit, first reported by The Baltimore Sun, that university officials ignored her pleas to intervene and stop the harassment, which she alleges went on between 2014 and 2017.
The university has said it takes allegations of sexual misconduct seriously. A spokesman said the university looked into Goldstein’s complaints and took reasonable steps to address them.
A university investigative body ultimately ruled that Crawford “could not reasonably conclude that his advances were not unwelcome.”
Still, the investigation determined he had shown “poor judgment” and the school declined to renew his faculty contract. He now works at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta.
Crawford declined to comment for that story through his lawyer.
A Baltimore Sun investigation found at least three other women complained to the university about Crawford’s behavior, saying he harassed them or other women. Those women and others described an atmosphere in which inappropriate comments were accepted as part of the male-dominated vascular surgery department.
The letter sent in January by the anonymous group of women suggests the problems extended beyond that department.
“We are living in a time of heightened awareness of environments where powerful men have privilege and use it to take advantage of and/or benefit the women who surround them,” they wrote. “Our cultures at the [medical school] and the hospital are unfortunately not immune to such behavior.”
Their letter came in the wake of the fall 2017 allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, which set off a national reckoning about the way women are treated in the workplace. Over the past year, stories of alleged and admitted sexual abuse and harassment have been shared using the hashtag #MeToo. Doctors, surgeons, residents and nurses used a more specific call: #MeTooMedicine.
The problem of sexual harassment in hospitals and medical schools is pervasive: A study released in 2016 found that 30 percent of female clinician-researchers had reported sexual harassment.
The anonymous women wrote in the January letter that they spoke for themselves and “women who have not yet found the courage to express their concerns.”
In the letter, they named two surgeons who they alleged had been having open affairs with subordinates. In one case, they said, a surgeon was having multiple relationships with women in his department.
“These relationships have contributed to a culture where both men and women believe that if a woman sleeps with [name redacted] she will benefit financially or by being promoted with questionable merit.”
The letter also described a third surgeon who “continues to make racial slurs and inappropriate sexual commentary.”
In response to the letter, University of Maryland Medical Center President Mohan Suntha, along with Reece, wrote a letter to the university medical community referencing the #MeToo movement and saying they wanted to create a culture of “fairness, respect and inclusion.”
The university hired an outside firm to do 80 confidential focus groups so that employees could speak freely about the culture of the organization. And at the beginning of the fall semester, Perman announced required sexual misconduct awareness and prevention training program for all students, faculty and staff. In addition, the organization has created a joint task force on culture.
The American Medical Association states that “sexual relationships between medical supervisors and trainees are not acceptable, even if consensual” because of concerns about power dynamics.
Roughly four out of five surgeons are male, and that disparity also exists in medical academia. Women constitute 26 percent of assistant professors of surgery, 13 percent of associate professors and 8 percent of professors, according to the Association of Women Surgeons. Of the 25 department chairs in the Maryland medical school, just one is a woman. The university said women represent 19 percent of its medical school leadership, including chairs, directors and deans.