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WUSM Climate and Culture Report reveals systemic inequalities

| Managing News Editor

(Sam Powers | Student Life)

After a year-long investigation, Washington University School of Medicine (WUSM) released an internal report as well as an external report conducted by Catalyst, a consulting firm, about the “climate and culture” of the institution, Dec. 14.

One of the main findings the investigations reported was that men at WUSM feel more included, safe, and welcomed than women at the student and faculty level. 

Over 4,000 people responded to a survey about their workplace and more than 350 people participated in focus groups, listening sessions, or submitted messages via an anonymous portal created for the report. The internal and external reports both described a “boys’ club” culture and an environment that is “potentially hostile” towards women.

Dean David H. Perlmutter and WUSM leadership, including Sherree Wilson, the Associate Vice Chancellor and Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, declined to do an interview with Student Life about the findings of the reports. 

All current and former members of the task force charged with creating the internal report were not allowed to speak with the media per WUSM. 

Only 29% of people reported that they “often” or “always” have a positive inclusive experience at WUSM, an average of 7% fewer than the “comparator score,” an aggregated metric generated by Catalyst which compares WUSM to other organizations the firm has worked with. 

“I don’t know if we’re creating those safe spaces that we seem to say we are,” one anonymous female resident said in the internal report.

One faculty member highlighted how much work the school needs to do in terms of psychological safety which she defined as “feeling you can go to your leadership without fearing retribution or it may come back to harm you in some way.” 

Nearly half of the respondents reported that they frequently felt psychologically safe in their workplace environment. Only 35% and 39% of non-white female faculty and “learners,” —  graduate students, medical students, postdoctoral fellows, and residents — said they felt that their workplace is “often or always inclusive.”

“Interviews revealed an intense culture with highly talented individuals, but both men and women agree that the culture is less supportive of women and potentially hostile toward them,” read the WashU report.

Mackenzie Lemieux, a fourth-year medical student and co-leader of Students for Equitable Treatment (SFET), a student advocacy group with the goal of getting WUSM to conduct an internal report on the workplace environment, said the report was “what we expected it to be.” 

Lemieux, along with fourth-year WUSM student Jackson Burton, founded SFET, and the two gathered student opinions and helped craft a petition that demanded the creation of a task force and the eventual release of a report.

Lemieux said that in her experience, if female students did not choose to be “one of the guys” they would not receive funding, , work with mentors, or work on work on more interesting projects. 

“Even among the professors there was very much an old white boys’ club,” Lemieux said.  

Emil Unanue Distinguished Professor of Pathology and Immunology and former president of the Academic Women’s Network (AWN), Gwendolyn Randolph, connected with SFET after making a speech at AWN’s annual holiday reception which emphasized issues of reporting and sexual harassment brought to light by a Student Life article published in December 2022. 

Randolph accepted the position to become Division Chief in 2015 and frequently found herself the only woman in most of her meetings. She stepped down two years later because she felt she was being tokenized by those around her.

“I felt like I was being used in part to [show] the outside world we have a woman leader, that we have no problems,” Randolph said. “We’re overcoming our boys’ club reputation, but inside it was really a challenging experience.”

While serving as Division Chief she became motivated to work closer with students after hearing female graduate students saying they were being treated as “second-class citizens.” In 2017, Randolph resigned and began working as the immunology program director, a role she held until 2023. 

The experience of these students and others points to the larger problem of procedural fairness, defined in the external report as “fair, timely, and respectful decision-making processes are in place of individual outcome,” which was one of the lowest-scoring metrics for the school.

Only 29% of respondents reported that their workplace was “often or always inclusive” when it came to procedural fairness. The vast majority, roughly 84-85% of white and minority female faculty, responded saying the procedures at the school were “not fair” often or always.  

One female resident said that at the medical student and residency-level students are recognized for their work, but beyond that, the recognition is not the same as it is for men. 

“We don’t have transparency in promotion criteria,” the female faculty member said. “What things do you need to be promoted? [I know] one woman that took 10+ years to become an associate professor…If we don’t do a better job of supporting people’s careers, we won’t be able to maintain excellence of care, research, and clinical production because young people are not staying. They are leaving.”

According to the WUSM guidelines for faculty appointments and promotions, transfer between tracks at the assistant professor level generally should happen before the end of one’s fifth year as an assistant professor. 

Institutional mistrust runs especially deep when it comes to the Human Resources department, which multiple interviewees described as a “black box.” 

“One of the most frustrating things is our ability to constantly talk about what we know to be the problem, but the lack of action is deafening,” a male faculty member said in the Catalyst report, referring to past complaints that had not been addressed. 

The lack of standardized protocol for dealing with faculty misconduct was another issue for Lemieux and something addressed by the WashU report. According to her, “you submit your HR report. It’s a black hole, and most of the time, nothing happens.” 

Randolph and Lemieux support WUSM’s decision to simplify the existing system and institute a “one front door” policy so those filing reports are aware of their status after submitting the complaint with HR. 

According to Lemieux, her experience as a co-leader of SFET has exposed her to a number of stories from students who worry that faculty can see the filed complaints and will treat students differently based on their contents. 

“Students say they want more clarity on the [reporting] process, they wonder who sees their report, who chooses the punishment for the perpetrator or if there will even be a punishment,” Lemieux said.

Randolph said that the report, released days before students went on winter break, is not being widely discussed within her department at WUSM. She is trying to remain optimistic but is concerned there will be some pockets within the institution where it will be difficult for meaningful change to take place. 

“[I’ve] had a number of faculty colleagues who left over the years, and it’s possible that part of the cause was related to gender discrimination, intentional or not,” Randolph said. 

The culture at WUSM and the reports have left Randolph begging the question, “Do we really want to change, or do we want to make it look like we want to change and, if we want to, then what would be the path to doing it?”

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