publication date: Oct. 2, 2020

In their own words: Responses to The Cancer Letter survey on gender bias

These harrowing responses to The Cancer Letter’s survey on gender bias are best represented with no interpretation or analysis.

These excerpts have been anonymized and de-identified. To maintain anonymity, some excerpts containing multiple points have been separated. The average number of types of harassment and bias reported by respondents to this survey is 2.6 per person.

The excerpts respond to six questions:

  1. What was the issue you experienced?

  2. Why (or why not) did you report?

  3. Describe the impact of this incident.

  4. What would have been the appropriate response from your institution?

  5. What policies or directives should your institution’s leadership implement to address gender bias?

  6. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Please be aware that the first section about the harassment these respondents faced may be difficult to read. Later sections deal more specifically with policy issues. The respondents to this survey are in all levels of medicine, primarily academic oncology.


What was the issue you experienced?

(Did a colleague, professional acquaintance, peer, or senior coworker cause you to feel disrespected or unsafe because of your gender?)

Every day.

I work in an environment where diversity of opinion, among senior leadership, is not appreciated or encouraged. This situation is particularly true for women. The net result is a toxic work environment, which has led to a substantial decrease in the number of female leaders/chairs.

Verbal abuse, screaming, ranting and raving, trapping me in my office. Grabbed my face on one occasion.

During my fellowship, the other male fellow was given all the studies and I could not find anyone to allow me to participate. He was hired for a position he was not qualified for and two qualified women were not.

I was alone in a hospital elevator when two surgeons stepped on. One proceeded to make comments to his colleague on my appearance and my presumed fellatio skills.

The (female) senior leadership in my department and cancer center left, and the weaker male replacements did not protect me from bullying by my facility head.

I asked the editor-in-chief of a major cancer journal about submitting a paper that I thought might be right for the journal. We were in the midst of a large crowded poster session. He told me exactly what we were going to do together, in broad daylight, with a smile on his face, and no one was the wiser.

When I made a suggestion in a meeting, upper administration (3 men) literally laughed at me for a good 20 seconds. They were laughing at the naivete (supposedly) of my suggestion. Myself and the other woman just looked at them as this occurred—I’m sure they didn’t think it was out of the ordinary or problematic at all. I cannot imagine they would have laughed in a man’s face that way, and the gender difference in behavior in the room was striking to the women at least.

Repeated instances of “Dr. Man and First-name woman”—it is pervasive even when we are at the same level of full professor. More subtly, expecting the female faculty member to just pick up the care-taking and more menial tasks in a group effort. Scheduling meetings (and conferences) at off-hours/off-days when a person could be expected to be doing home-work “because we’re all free at that time” (and presumably because they have someone else doing the housework and grocery shopping and care-taking).

As a med student (way back in the 1980s) an attending surgeon called all the male students on the rotation by their last names. He called me “honey.”

Don’t get me started on the number of times in my long career that I’ve been mistaken for a nurse, by doctors, by patients, but never by nurses!

When I started my lab, I was one of the very few female PIs and I was one of the youngest as well. Due to this, whenever I wanted to have anything done, the administrators and even the cleaning people always asked for my boss, since I do not look like someone who can actually be a faculty.

Inappropriate touching by a male peer at conferences.

Having male residents reviewed as the team leader on rounds instead of me.

The manager of a community cancer center calls me “little woman” or “little doctor” all the time but he calls my male colleagues by their last name with respect and fear.

A senior president asked me to take me for dinner but when I immediately refused because I was shocked by his proposal he told me, “well then good luck with your career.”

This is an issue that has been constant throughout my > 40 year career. There are so many that I can’t possibly list them.

I have been harassed for being gay, which while not sexual harassment per se, is related to gender.

Gender bias in promotion. A senior coworker made unwelcome offers that felt suggestive and inappropriate.

A co-worker often yelled and demeaned me in front of others, and I believe that had I been male, he wouldn’t have been so horrible to me. In general, this workplace was not very friendly to women: our ideas were not seen as worthy as men’s in meetings, and male scientists often spoke poorly of women’s contributions in the lab.

One of my senior male mentors started to feel threatened by my success and retaliated by making disparaging comments about my leadership skills, making inappropriate comments that put me down in front of large groups, and talking to my personal research contacts in order to do separate research. During the course of this treatment he made me feel like it was my fault. I spoke with leadership at my institution, yet nothing was done. I ultimately had to leave my institution because of his behavior.

Routinely addressed by first name or Ms. rather than “Doctor.”

As junior faculty/PI (female), I assumed a leadership position vacated by a man who was at the same level (tenure/experience). I was paid 40K less than he was.

While on a panel of experts at a conference, the male colleague seated next to me kept putting his hand on my knee. I was a young investigator.

Overheard a senior male colleague refer to a female scientist who was junior with a sexist remark. This same senior male colleague had a reputation for never acknowledging women in meetings, even if they were seated next to him.

New referrals preferentially given to male physicians. male physicians have a higher salary and are given several support staff—I have a part time nurse.

When serving on a committee to review salary parity (across institutions, departments), it became apparent that male salaries were significantly greater than female salaries at the same rank and tenure. Although I repeatedly brought this up as an issue, this fact never made it into the final report.

Called by my first name (including a demeaning nickname) when introduced for presentations.

Funds were removed from my endowed chair and given to a male colleague. I was “chair in name only.” I was told that “math” was too difficult for me to understand, so my accounts were never provided to me—I taught partial differential equations to grad students.

Disrespect in terms of maternity leave comments; comments about a female being ‘bossy/hormonal’ but a male being a ‘leader.’

At my institution (a well known cancer center) women faculty are typically referred to by their first name but men are always “Dr.”

Of the many examples, let’s describe a same-institution colleague at a meeting banquet, who probably had one too many glasses of wine, and told me that he was chairing a meeting in Greece. Asked if I knew how women went to the beach in Greece? If he invited me, would I go to the topless beach with him…

Grant and manuscript reviews that are not blinded often have dismissive tones in the review comments for females—less so for males and males are often ‘given a pass’ when details are not provided on certain aspects of grant applications.

There are numerous episodes through my surgical career of over 20 years. Rude and disrespectful jokes, references to my anatomy, cornered in an elevator by a senior attending when I was a medical student, unwelcome touching in front of my husband, salary disparity several times.

Ongoing and routine non-use of title/honorific when I am in certain clinical settings, salary disparity that took significant effort to discover and resolve, and, when I disclosed my pregnancy, a senior colleague thought it appropriate to respond, “I thought you were just eating too many Twinkies or something and getting fat.”

Promotion/office space/lab space/resources bias towards male colleagues.

I was not treated with respect: my title was not used (always referred to by my first name, not Dr). Pay was significantly lower than males of the same rank.

Not part of the ‘good ole boys club’ due to gender, so I am left out/ignored.

You do not have enough time: to summarize, I have been consistently made to feel that I am unwelcome throughout my career. This included attempts to intimidate me using sexually suggestive comments and physical contact early in my career—to suggestions that I should be less successful, because it was agitating my male colleagues later in my career.

Lack of opportunities or consideration for advancement based upon gender, treated differently and disrespected, not called by honorific (PhD), passed over for administrative promotion, treated as “de facto secretary” (assumed I’d take notes) because I was the lowest ranking woman in the room for a senior admin meeting.


Why did you report?

I was hoping something could be done to make the situation better.

It took two years to report the ongoing abuse. It wasn’t until a male faculty member intervened and encouraged me to report the abuse that I had the courage to do so.

Because it impacted patient care.

Because it was related to intellectual property and my federally-funded grant.

He made it very difficult to do my job and made my life hell.

The right thing to do.

Non-use of professional titles and salary disparity I did report because it is important to correct these deficiencies—not just for myself, but for the women I mentor and train.

I informed the HR team about the bullying but there is no change in the behavior of those staff members.

I tried to report the salary differential, but was ignored. I was very junior when the other incidents occurred and didn’t know what to do.

Multiple conversations with chair and center leadership, eventually anonymously with the university ombudsman.

Human rights.


Why didn’t you report?

This is academics, don’t feel comfortable.

Did not meet the standard of harassment or bias per institutional reporting. BUT, I have, in some cases, provided feedback to the speaker on their choice of words and action and assumptions.

Did not feel it would be helpful. The women who were overlooked felt it would damage their careers.

Ashamed to cause a scene. Also, he holds a superior position with many connections so I didn’t want to cause any noise.

Irritating but not really reportable—and who would I report it to? I certainly gossiped like crazy though to warn other women.

There’s not a good culture for reporting this at my institution.

In the 1980s? In Virginia??

Satisfaction unlikely, bullshit likely.

No, it was part of the overall culture due to lack of women as faculty.

Too much trouble/effort. You get used to this behavior/experience as a woman in the U.S.

Instead, I left and am making 4x the salary somewhere else.

It’s endless. Sexual harassment has largely stopped (aging?) but the discrimination is always there, but better hidden for the most part. I take measures when I can to force more equality but reporting would take all my time.

I am just a PhD, no one cares.

Worried about retaliation.

I felt that the institution would not support me and the process would be long and difficult. I left the institution a few months later. Untenable situation and I had to leave. One of the most difficult times of my life.

Scared. Male colleagues circled wagons, management supported them.

It was the mid-1990s, I was a medical student and the harasser was a professor.

Did not feel it would make a difference.

I reported the poor treatment to [my boss], but I did not report to HR. I was younger and relatively new to the workplace at this point in time, so I didn’t stand up for myself like I would now. [My boss] handled this by having a conversation with the person who was harassing me in the break room—not in his office with the door closed, like this should have been handled.

Did not feel anything would be done.

Who would I report it to?

In the first instance, I was uncomfortable with the situation but I was early in my career and knew I needed to maintain a good working relationship with the people involved since I would interact with them every day for many years. In the second instance, I was comfortable speaking with the individual and since an apology was offered, I did not pursue it further although it still hurts me deeply to think about it.

It didn’t seem offensive, but the norm.

Felt it would only hurt myself.

It was minor.

I addressed it myself with the individuals and named it as sexual harassment and it stopped.

I didn’t want to make a fuss.

No options for reporting. Would not have been seen by male leadership as significant issues.

It would have made the situation worse.

Prevalent attitudes are barriers and I didn’t want to be seen as making trouble.

I was young, inexperienced, and new to my role. Though it was not physical, the experience scared me enough to not report.

Boy’s club; no guarantee that things are kept confidential.

HR unresponsive in the past. Fear of retaliation from chair.

No mechanism for reporting.

[He] was too powerful. It would have ruined my career. Never occurred to me to go to HR.


Fear of retaliation.

Upper administration members (all male) laughed at me in a meeting. Who do I report that to???


Fear of retaliation.

Would sound like I am whining.

Believed leadership would not take action.



Describe the response or lack thereof.

The individual was moved out of their leadership role, but given another leadership role on campus with a multi-million retention so they didn’t lose their grant funding.

Defensive, then retaliatory.

There has been little change, as the problem starts at the top.

Institution was so unresponsive that I sought legal counsel and filed charges. Institution was so slow to react, that it required a year of negotiations to settle the issue.

Told me to “handle it.”

My department/school and the university faculty senate say that I have no status as non-tenured faculty. A lawyer explained that as long as the people involved only slandered me within the institution I had no recourse. I haven’t heard back from Title IX yet.

Received a larger than usual raise but still did not match male equivalents.

Was told my boss maintained an adequate professional standard because he said good morning regularly and was friendly.

Manager [a woman] laughed and thought it was funny and that I was too sensitive.

The person that sexually harassed me was given the option to resign instead of being fired. This person has a position of leadership where he can continue to wield power over me and other individuals he harassed.

In faculty dinner meetings, I have been shamed publicly for using due process to complain about treatment.

Salaries were adjusted for most women (15% pay gap).

Though the behavior from this individual did get a little bit better, the overall toxic workplace environment did not. I was ostracized both socially and professionally from my colleagues. I chose to leave this job.

The institution was initially going to conduct a formal legal investigation. I met with a lawyer, but learned many months later that they closed the investigation given that other women wouldn’t talk.

Despite bringing up the salary differential several times, it was ignored.

The salary disparity issue was resolved adequately. I have yet to see whether the consistent non-use of professional titles has been resolved satisfactorily.

As I was leaving, the head of the cancer center at the time told me I had a case for gender discrimination—I told him living well was the best revenge.

They did not acknowledge the notice issued by the Human Rights Commission.

Many of my colleagues (men and women) have complained on our annual employee surveys. The issue has never once been brought up when the results of the survey are being discussed.

They said to let them know if it happened again.

Blaming me.

My boss literally pretended to get a phone call and walked out of the room when I raised the issue of lack of promotion differential treatment.


Describe the impact of this incident.

I left my position and no longer work in academics. Gender equity now overshadows all of my academic work.

Developed severe depression.

It makes you doubt yourself. You are not regarded equal to or treated the same as the male counterparts or subordinates.

The constant drumbeat of a lack of respect has been fairly stressful and has made it difficult for me to advocate for resources and change.

Seriously considered leaving the program.

Emotional abuse, severe depression which took over a year to get back to “normal.”

It makes you wary of putting yourself in a situation where it can happen again.

I am still at the institution where these incidents have taken place. I have an otherwise supportive team but I am cognizant that whether or not I make my personal life a topic of workplace discussion, it will still be speculated upon by others and also used to assign work and responsibilities. The only thing I can do is try to do for others what I wish had been done for me.

Depressed; distraught; unable to focus or feel dedicated to my work.

I am still worried about the impact of these incidents on my reputation. It also took a lot of time for me to even take the step of filling this survey.

I’m way behind in advancement than my male colleagues.

Moved to industry.

Anger and depression at daily harassment—not directly at me, but a very hostile environment.

The person who sexually harassed me was my mentor. When I didn’t give him what he wanted he was furious, made my life a living hell at work, and dropped me as a mentee. He stifled my academic career. He has tried to tarnish my reputation among national and international leaders in my field by telling everyone I made up lies about sexual harassment so that I could take over his “empire.”

Lack of confidence in institutional culture.

Isolated from my division.

Well, I think I solved the problem when, one day in the OR when he said “honey hold the retractor” I responded “sweetie if you tell me where to place it I’ll do it,” and then pointed out to him that he called all the guys by their last name and called me honey. From that day forward all of us were called by our first names.

I was burned out and clinically depressed. I am considering leaving the institution at which this happened, but have not made a final decision.

I am currently in the process of leaving the profession.

I left one institution, I now point out inequities and fight them out whenever possible. Lots of gender bias is subconscious, offending parties are completely unaware.

I am leaving my current institution because of the toxic work environment.

I ended up leaving the field and pursuing a new field of study. I learned from this experience and have subsequently promised to be an advocate for myself and others in the workplace.

Being treated as less important undercuts confidence in speaking up, etc.,

Increased my burnout.

My resting heart rate was in the 90s, I gained 40lbs and developed a variety of skin conditions. All issues resolved after my boss was eventually removed.

I stood up to my chairman and told him exactly what I thought when each situation occurred. He learned that I couldn’t be pushed around and that I was not going to tolerate his patronizing attitude. He did respect me for it and I had a very straight relationship thereafter with him when everyone around him lied to his face about everything.

It pushed me. I learned that your fears follow you so you need to face them.

It is difficult to always feel like the unwelcome outsider and to have only “perfect” interactions with everyone.

Had to move to a new institution, start all over again.


What would have been the appropriate response from your institution?

A decent chair/leader would have stopped the [harasser], who was interfering with my ability to find additional funding.

Providing parity in a more rigorous manner rather than waiting for individual complaints.

Immediate action taken against the perpetrator (losing privileges, bonus money, his endowed chair, other).

More open and inclusive discussions of new initiatives and a concerted effort to increase gender and racial diversity among senior leadership.

Very simple: acknowledgement. A simple apology and corrections of the many wrongs.

Termination of the individual regardless of how much grant money they bring. Abuse should not be tolerated.

Fire the offender instead of the victim.

An investigation. The perpetrator should have been removed from their position.

They should have been evaluated by HR.

The HR team or administration should have taken steps to prevent the bullying.

Looking at facts, identifying gaps, and responding to restore balance. However, the result is usually an excuse: “we can explain why, etc…” Or worse, lies.

Re-assigning me to work with a different individual, and disciplinary action and remediation.

For the persons in charge of meetings to correct those who refer to men as Dr. XX and women by their first names.

Put women and minorities in leadership positions in proportion to the population.

To simply listen to me and not punish or retaliate against me for speaking out.

Any involvement of senior leadership.

An apology.

Equitable pay scale.

Real training of the men to recognize their biases would be helpful, but will never happen.

Direct response to the perpetrators, reform.


What policies or directives should your institution’s leadership implement to address gender bias?

They should have some!

It has to be more than bias training.

Each search committee should have a specific charge to increase diversity of applicants, and to more carefully consider gender and race in candidate selection. Implementation of meaningful unconscious bias training.

My current institution does not seem to have issues, although slow to promote women to positions of authority. This is improving.

We have all kinds of policies, they are just not enforced when it comes to individuals who bring in lots of money.

For one thing, the university does not have an ombuds position. The institution seems to think that a monthly “women in cancer” funded lunch will placate the NCI for the support grant renewal, and I suspect they are correct.

Leadership of more than the white good old boys.

A zero tolerance policy on sexual harassment and gender discrimination. Flexible reporting structures. Transparency in pay and promotion.

I think that continued training in bias, with practical examples, would be helpful. I think it would be more impactful if stories within the institution or department were anonymized and used as teaching examples. Most people go to these types of training somewhat removed from the events or repercussions because the examples always seem to happen “elsewhere, but not here.”

I’m not sure what could fix this—I’m sure they don’t think they behaved badly.

Careful consideration of moral ethics when selecting Board Members and people in power, not only knowledge.

Harassers and discriminators need to be called out publicly; only then will it slow down. Getting away with it and being told to stop just doesn’t work.

Policies are in place, they are not followed by leadership.

The institution lacked women in leadership. If more women were there, I think this may not have happened.

Include questions about mentorship and career advancement opportunities for junior faculty in supervising faculty’s annual review.

Have a safety net for affected individuals to voice concerns and actually do something about these concerns instead of ignoring them or blaming the victims

Make bold statements like becoming a signatory member up for TimesUp Healthcare.

Transparency and communication regarding gender discrimination and harassment (for example a faculty member in my Department was fired for overt sexual misconduct and there was no communication about this. I only heard about it via an external source).

Be more open and up front about it!

Implicit bias training, talking about ways in which women are spoken to differently than men.

To better understand the entire gamut of gender bias—it’s not just sexual assault.

Put women and minorities in leadership positions in proportion to the population.

Leadership at the very top should resign, or secure a professional service to assist in confronting their biases. The culture of retaliation needs to stop before gender bias can be addressed.

Bringing it to the attention of the staff/employees. Once people are aware that it’s happening, tools to correct the behavior would be helpful.

Mandatory training, anonymous reporting, culture changes

There should be directives from the top that all faculty are addressed with honorific titles or none are. This needs to be directed to all departments.

Consistent use of professional titles should be required in a professional setting.

Periodic department review of compensation and service assignments should be conducted to identify and correct disparities.

Review salaries and remove gross disparities.

Training of the men to recognize their biases. Committees to evaluate any leadership decisions to make sure they are not superimposing their expectations and biases. All women can’t be ‘difficult’ or ‘lightweight.’

Maybe give the male leadership, specifically those over 65, training in “leaning out”—getting out of the way for the next generation of leaders.


Is there anything you’d like to add?

Just look at our websites and you’ll see differences in how men and women are portrayed.

I do think that the role of the chair or chief cannot be understated. If the chair or chief pays lip service to these events or trainings, then no one else takes it seriously. The culture of the department starts at the top.

The #MeToo movement was great to raise awareness and empower women. But if institutions are just going to let people resign quietly so that they can continue to harass other people and not actually be held accountable for their actions, then they are not really addressing the issue. This is similar to what happened in the Catholic Church where priests were moved from parish to parish instead of actually facing the consequences of their actions.

I cannot believe that any woman could identify just one or 7 or 10 incidents to discuss in this survey. You might hypothesize that those taking the time to respond to this survey are an isolated few who have had rare negative experiences. That is not the case. I’m a 60 year old woman who is trusted as a good sounding board, a good friend. I don’t know one woman, who I have worked with, who has not experienced unwanted and uncomfortable sexual pressures. The design of this survey may be the equivalent of asking someone whose home was destroyed and family members killed and asking them if there has been “an impact on their personal well-being.”

Our national standing in medicine and cancer research is impacted negatively when we accept the “norms” of various institutions. While I have done my part in fighting back, I predict that some catastrophic event (that I will not be part of) will force us as a society to reevaluate how we treat others who differ from us. I believe that a return to a meritocracy could result in diversity of our community.

The problem in academics is that it is every man/woman/etc for him/herself. Salaries are not uniform or transparent, nor are bonuses, vacations, etc. So, it creates an atmosphere of animosity and distrust amongst colleagues and between chairs and their subordinate attending physicians. Stabbing in the back is common in medicine; it is just couched in different terms these days.

Yes, this gender bias war will go on forever. We need to be given a safe place, room to grow, and set a precedent for the next generation.

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