The University of Wisconsin’s board of regents and a former chair of its Department of Anesthesiology, Robert Pearce M.D., are staring down a proposed class action filed by a female physician who alleges she was subject to both sex discrimination and a hostile work environment.
According to the lawsuit, the plaintiff is an anesthesiologist at the university’s School of Medicine and Public Health and has maintained a respected professional reputation, including being ranked as the top pediatric anesthesiologist in Dane County. The case alleges that despite the plaintiff’s extensive experience and skill, she, along with other female physicians, have been deprived of the same pay and opportunities granted to male doctors.
This all stems from, the suit says, Pearce’s pattern of allegedly denying female physicians leadership opportunities, which consequently deprived them of higher pay. Leadership appointments, the suit explains, were at the sole discretion of the former department chair and were not open to application, nomination or vote. During his tenure, the case says, defendant Pearce even went so far as to enact a policy against considering part-time faculty, an overwhelming majority of which are female, for leadership roles. As such, the plaintiff, a part-time employee, and other female physicians were blocked from the same opportunities for professional advancement that were given to their male peers. Additionally, the suit alleges the former chair discouraged female physicians’ research interests and did not provide them with equal mentorship opportunities or resources.
In 2015, the complaint notes, female physicians petitioned the university’s administration to review the department’s compensation plans in terms of gender equality. The former chair supposedly provided the administration with the salaries of just 60 of the department’s 74 physicians, leading the university to incorrectly conclude that no gender disparity existed.
The case goes on to take issue with an alleged “culture of physical intimidation and bullying” permitted in the university’s Department of Anesthesiology. The complaint says that in a 2017 climate report, male faculty described the department as a “boy’s club, frat-boy environment, and good-old boy network.” According to the suit, male faculty regularly demeaned female physicians, who were often referred to as “candy-stripers,” “the crying hospital,” and “candyland.”
Fueling the department’s allegedly hostile work environment was the former department chair’s apparent failure to discipline male physicians. The plaintiff claims that one such physician had a documented history of physical abuse toward female faculty, and once violently grabbed her by the throat and shook her while shouting in her face. The department’s alleged lack of discipline also resulted in the “serial sexual assault of a multitude of anesthetized female patients by a male physician,” which continued to take place despite numerous reports of the assaults.
The proposed class action seeks to represent all female physicians who were employed by the university’s Department of Anesthesiology at any time between March 13, 2013 and the present.