Leonidas Platanias: These incidents are “really shocking and disturbing”

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Leonidas C. Platanias, MD, PhD

Director, Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center
Jesse, Sara, Andrew, Abigail, Benjamin and Elizabeth Lurie Professor of Oncology; Professor of medicine (hematology and oncology), biochemistry and molecular genetics

This obviously needs to change, and it needs to happen fast. It’s totally unacceptable at all levels. I also think it negatively impacts cancer research. These situations can affect how teams function and, ultimately, have a negative impact in research.

Leonidas C. Platanias spoke with Alexandria Carolan, a reporter with The Cancer Letter:

Alexandria Carolan: With this survey, we compiled a database of cases of gender bias, cases where the system has failed. What is there to learn from this?

Leonidas Platanias: The study as a whole, the incidents of discrimination, harassment—are really shocking and disturbing. It’s hard to believe that this type of gender inequity and related issues still exist in our century at the same time as medicine and science continue to advance.

This obviously needs to change, and it needs to happen fast. It’s totally unacceptable at all levels. I also think it negatively impacts cancer research. These situations can affect how teams function and, ultimately, have a negative impact in research.

Essentially, this is a compilation of bad reviews. What is there to be learned by knowing how these systems have failed?

LP: I think it is important for all of us and all our institutions to be committed to create an inclusive environment free of bias. To do that, several things have to be in place. There is a lot of activity in that direction here at Northwestern.

People have to first recognize and understand both their conscious and unconscious biases. Then, there should be programs in place to provide information that would bring leaders in the organization together, to address this important issue.

I think there should be an open dialogue and reflection. We have some examples here at the university, at the medical school level, with town hall meetings, a task force to address inclusion and bias—and other related efforts.

At the end of the day, people need to understand that these things are deeply offensive and wrong, and are clearly utterly unacceptable for any working environment.

What sort of reporting mechanisms for this does Northwestern have in place? How do you go about that?

LP: It’s not a mechanism that goes through the cancer center. There is a detailed reporting process and a number of support mechanisms at the university level. There are response teams, websites, and other systems in place to report incidents in a confidential way via the Office of Equity or anonymously via an online portal.

One thing you might be interested to hear is that one respondent, who experienced no incident of gender bias, said Northwestern specifically was a good place to work.

LP: That’s good to hear. There has been significant activity to address such issues. There has been a focused effort to proactively provide resources, and foster a supportive environment.

One other thing is that as a director, I have appointed more women to leadership positions in recent years. We now have more women in leadership positions in the cancer center than before, including the deputy director of the cancer center and associate directors.

We also have many women program leaders. The point I’m trying to make is that we are intentional in addressing these very important issues across the cancer center.

And when you see data like these, it’s shocking. I think that’s the exact word you used.

LP: Yeah. And deeply disturbing, actually.

As a cancer center director, how do you begin to implement changes to improve the systems at work here? What is the first step?

LP: Well, again, one thing is that you have to remember that most cancer centers are matrix cancer centers—and work in cooperation with a medical school and a university. But I think the first thing is to create an inclusive environment, and to try to be free of bias.

This is something that, in order to be successful, has to be a deliberate effort. It has to target unconscious biases, too. We have developed some new programs, conversations with leadership, to get more information—so first of all, leaders understand that, and then they bring it to their faculty as leaders of different units.

The first step is to recognize the problem. The next step is to encourage open dialogue and reflection, and to create an inclusive, respectful environment that will make it easier to confront attitudes and behaviors, with people at various levels.

Is there anything you’d like to add to the conversation?

LP: You mentioned that reporting can be optimized. That’s exactly what needs to happen.

The problem needs to be confronted more aggressively, both at the local levels, at the different university centers, but also at the national level. There are already such efforts, but perhaps there should be a more comprehensive national conversation.

The first step is to recognize the problem. The next step is to encourage open dialogue and ref lection, and to create an inclusive, respectful environment that will make it easier to confront attitudes and behaviors, with people at various levels. 

What would something national look like, in terms of NCI, or in terms of the government in general?

LP: In our field, it may be the NCI. Again, it will have to be something that will have a very specific pathway and a very specific purpose.

It shouldn’t be something just to show that we are doing something. It should be something that really confronts the problem, to really make sure that there is no discrimination at any level.

Well thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me.

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