TORONTO – The #MeToo movement is having a chilling effect in academic medicine, leading some male physicians and scientists to avoid mentoring female colleagues by claiming they fear false accusations of sexual misconduct, says a group of women who hold leading positions in Canada’s health-education system.
In a commentary published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine, the six authors say a lack of mentorship is depriving women in education- and research-based medicine the key opportunities needed to advance their careers.
“Part of the reason we wrote this article is we know that academic medicine mentorships for women are not of the same quality and quantity as they are for their male colleagues,” said lead author Dr. Sophie Soklaridis, a scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto. “We’ve all heard and we’ve had experiences and there’s been (research) literature that has said that men are now saying that they fear mentoring women because they fear being falsely accused of some kind of sexual misconduct,” Soklaridis said in an interview.
“What I worry about is that men are now going to use this excuse of worrying that they’re under some kind of threat as a reason to back off mentorship.”
A mentor is someone who supports career aspirations and can help open doors for advancement, she said.
“Without mentors, women do not have the opportunities that their male colleagues enjoy,” added co-author Dr. Catherine Zahn, CAMH president and CEO. “Over and over again, I’ve seen women without strong mentorship choose a pathway different than that they may have preferred.”
Lack of gender parity isn’t new: for example, women account for only 16 per cent of medical school deans and 15 per cent of department chairs in Canada and the U.S. – despite the fact that slightly more females than males are enrolled in medical schools.
“This has been happening for decades,” said Soklaridis. “Women have not been able to advance in leadership positions in academic medicine and we’ve been trying to find ways to level the playing field.”
But the #MeToo movement- which has brought down such high-profile men as Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and threatens to derail Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation for the U.S. Supreme Court – has put an added chill on male-female relationships in medical academia, the authors suggest.
As the authors write: “Being afraid to mentor women is not simply about fearing false accusations of sexual misconduct: it is about discrediting women who speak out against sexual assault and harassment… (which) threatens to halt progress toward gender equity in leadership roles.”
What has been particularly harmful is that some men have withdrawn their mentorships of female colleagues over what they say are concerns their careers could be damaged by accusations of sexual impropriety, even if they were to be subsequently proven innocent, said Soklaridis.
“That was something that we found profoundly detrimental and that needed to be addressed.”
Their commentary makes several recommendations, including that mentorship and leadership development programs be formally implemented at academic medicine institutions.
Conceding the idea won’t be popular, Soklaridis said quotas for female mentoring and leadership roles may also be needed to close the gender gap.
“I think when you have targets or you have quotas, it really focuses attention and provides opportunities to set an example for the importance of having gender equity,” she said. “If we do not promote diversity and equity within our leadership and within our workforce, we aren’t getting the best and the brightest in those positions.”
The other co-authors of the commentary are: Deborah Gills, president and CEO of the CAMH Foundation; Dr. Valerie Taylor, head of psychiatry at the University of Calgary; Dr. Ayelet Kuper, associate director of the Wilson Centre for Research in Education at University Health Network in Toronto; and Dr. Cynthia Whitehead, director and scientist at the Wilson Centre.