Mid-Career Oncologist Cites Harassment, Leaves Top Center

Nick Mulcahy and Roxanne Nelson, RN, BSN

June 16, 2020

Dr Pamela Kunz

Pamela Kunz, MD, an associate professor of medicine at Stanford University in California, has left the school after 19 years because of an environment that she said progressively created "significant barriers" to her success, according to a news story in the Stanford Daily, the school's student newspaper.

"The accumulated gender discrimination and harassment had taken their toll," Kunz tweeted last week about her latter years at Stanford Cancer Institute.


"As I entered mid-career, assumed leadership roles, and gained some degree of success, I was perceived as a threat by some male colleagues. At that point, I experienced insidious microaggressions and retaliation from male faculty," she explained in a Twitter thread.

Kunz is now leader of the Gastrointestinal Cancers Program at Smilow Cancer Hospital and Yale Cancer Center in New Haven, Connecticut. She starts work in July.

Until her recent move, Kunz had spent her entire career at Stanford. "I started in 2001 as an internal medicine resident, then chief resident, then Heme/Onc fellow before joining the Division of Oncology faculty in 2010," she told Medscape Medical News.

At the time of her departure, Kunz was director of the Stanford Neuroendocrine Tumor Program and leader of the Endocrine Oncology Clinical Research Group.

On social media, Kunz praised mentors and colleagues and said the institution was "a wonderful place to train and start my career."

But in recent years, as she ascended the career ladder, Kunz said that "things changed."

She described diminishments ranging from "public put-downs and disparaging comments to exclusion from research collaborations."

As a result, "I felt alone, demoralized, and stripped of my self-confidence," she added.

In a statement to Medscape Medical News, Stanford Medicine said it has "zero tolerance for sexual harassment…and we have robust policies in place to address these matters." Furthermore, the institution said it seeks to "advance gender equity — recognizing that this work is ongoing and progress must continue."

However, Persis Drell, PhD, the University’s provost, told the student newspaper that sexual harassment is at "unacceptable levels" and that "culture change" was needed, but will not be easily arrived at.

Kunz encourages other women to speak up and normalize talking about gender discrimination and sexual harassment.

"Role model that it is okay to talk about this," she said. "Easier said than done — but I hope that my speaking up will also inspire others."

"Dishearteningly Common"

In an email, Kunz explained that there wasn’t a final incident that triggered her decision to leave, but rather just a build-up of harassment from multiple faculty that she could not tolerate anymore.

"I also read a great deal about the topic via the 2018 NASEM [National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine] report and other objective scientific literature and learned that the problem is pervasive in academic medicine," she said. "This made me feel less alone and gave me the strength to talk about it."

A 2016 study demonstrated how persistent the problem is: In a survey of high-achieving medical academics, 30% of women and 4% of men reported personally experiencing sexual harassment.

Among the women respondents in the 2016 study, 59% said it hurt their confidence in themselves as professionals, and 47% reported that the experiences hampered career advancement.

Medscape Medical News asked study author Reshma Jagsi, MD, DPhil, deputy chair of radiation oncology, University of Michigan Medical School, Ann Arbor, to comment on the Stanford case.

"What Dr Kunz describes is dishearteningly common," she said, "Although much focus has been on the vulnerability of trainees and junior faculty, when women enter mid-career and pursue leadership positions, they are also vulnerable to becoming the targets of microaggressions and other harassment."

On Twitter, friends and associates rallied around Kunz. And one oncologist said that Stanford was not an anomaly.

"Thank you for your courage in sharing this story. It’s the only way to bring about real change. Unfortunately Stanford is not alone in perpetuating these types of behaviors," tweeted Emil Lou, MD, PhD, of University of Minnesota Health.

Investigation Eventually Dropped

At Stanford, Kunz brought her complaints to the administration and an investigation ensued, but it was later dropped. She is quoted in the school newspaper as saying that a "culture of disrespect" was a primary problem.

Coincidentally, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) last week announced new guidance requiring grantees to immediately report to the agency if they have a "finding of sexual harassment of a PI [principal investigator] named on an NIH grant."

Sexual harassment includes gender harassment, said the agency. The latter form of harassment relates to behaviors that convey the message that women "do not belong or do not merit respect," according to the above-mentioned 2018 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

Kunz recommends that women find both men and women to serve as allies, sponsors, and mentors who value women and diversity in medicine and recognize that that gender discrimination is a problem.

"I have found great support from other women colleagues in medicine, such as a LeanIn circle and virtual support via Twitter and a Facebook group called Hematology & Oncology Wolf Pack," she added.

Follow Medscape senior journalist Nick Mulcahy on Twitter: @MulcahyNick

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