Gender discrimination in medicine: The 5 miracles of Carol Warfield

For those who haven’t been following, earlier this month, Dr. Carol Warfield, a Harvard doctor and chief of anesthesia at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center was awarded a settlement of $7 million dollars for gender discrimination. It was a massive settlement to be sure, certainly one of the largest ever for a gender discrimination case.

But the large dollar figure is not the real story here. The real story is found in how this played out, because therein lies the implications for the countless other women physicians who face gender discrimination, harassment, and physician targeting.

These are the extraordinary facts—one might even call them miracles—of this case:

Miracle #1: The settlement is not a secret. Most cases that are settled out of court, unless they involve a public institution, are kept secret. The reasoning is that public knowledge will cause others to bring forth their complaints and/or the institution’s reputation will be sullied. How fallacious can this be? Beth Israel, a Harvard affiliate, an now point to their proactive measures and use this example in the future to show that they have the proper policies and procedures in place to prevent this type of wrong-doing. And the positive publicity is definitely a plus. Despite the large award, this story has not gone viral—a villain repentant is not front page news; a woman who gets what she really wanted—recognition and change—is even less newsworthy.

Miracle #2: Dr. Warfield did not have to leave her place of work. Most attorneys will tell you, “If you plan to sue your employer, plan to separate from your place of work.” In other words, the likely punishment for exercising your legal rights to raise issues of gender discrimination will typically leave you without your job. Not here. Dr. Warfield will keep on working at the institution she has served so well for over 30 years!

Miracle #3: “No fault, no admission of guilt” was softened by other words of conciliation. With only the Boston Globe article as source material, one had to read it carefully to find the words that evidenced the institution’s admission that their role was one that merited this settlement. Quoting the legal counsel for the defense: “This case serves as a reminder that, with time and consideration, people of goodwill can learn from one another. As we look back on this case, there are lessons for the institution.’’ Res ipsa loquitur.

Miracle #4: Dr. Warfield received her due recognition for accomplishments. Decades ago, Dr. Warfield, well ahead of her time, established a pain clinic. That pain clinic is now named in her honor, and this is where she will see patients and continue her work. This one brings tears to my eyes.

Miracle #5: Institutional action will be taken to improve the environment for women scientists and physicians. A lectureship will be established to keep a focus on the accomplishments and the challenges women face in the medical workplace. Dr. Warfield will also sit on a committee to monitor the progress of women.  This is a very important step, which we can only hope will be a springboard for other impactful changes. Dr. Warfield should press for a national audience with the talks recorded and available online for others to learn.

So in conclusion, what can other women physicians and the larger medical community learn from this case?  The 5 miracles that Dr. Warfield made. Women want to be able to work we are without experiencing humiliation and devaluation, women want to make a difference for their patients, and women want their fair share of recognition. But most importantly, when these basic needs are met, it’s that patients and healthcare facilities that benefit the most!

The dollar amount of this settlement is hard to ignore, but once again, it isn’t the most extraordinary part of the story. Anyone who has litigated for gender discrimination knows that this sort of fairy tale ending is extremely rare. But this is the real story, the extraordinary facts of the case. These are the best practices that every institution should follow. After all, doesn’t every medical institution aspire to be the best?

Linda Brodsky is a pediatric surgeon who blogs at Women MD Resources.

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