For Women in Law By Women in Law

Gender Discrimination in Leadership Positions: When one of us loses, we all lose

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This is not an uplifting story. It is, however, an important one to tell. Many still believe that highly skilled women occupying leadership positions in Canada are immune to gender-based discrimination. Sadly, this is not the case. To move the needle, we need to take an honest look at where it currently sits, as disappointed as that may leave us.

On March 18, 2021, the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal held that Dr. Irene Cybulsky (“Dr. C”), a highly accomplished cardiac surgeon, and a leader in her field, had been discriminated against, on the basis of her sex or gender, by her employer, Hamilton Health Sciences, a research hospital affiliated with McMaster University.

Dr. C’s story is a gutting example of how women, including women leaders in highly specialized fields, can be pushed out of their positions, and why we all lose as a result.

Dr. C was the head of the HHS Cardiac Surgery Service, a group of surgeons caring for patients who have had or would be having open heart surgery. Dr. C was appointed head of the service in 2009. The position was renewed annually, absent significant red flags that would warrant a review.

On July 1, 2016, after seven years of Dr. C occupying the position of head of the cardiac service, she was not reappointed and the position was open to applicants. The decision to not reappoint was both objectively groundless and discriminatory.

The hospital setting and cardiac surgery department in which Dr C worked were almost exclusively male. During Dr. C’s entire career of working as a cardiac surgeon at HHS, which began in 1990 as a resident, she was the only female cardiac surgeon. At the time she held this post, there were no other female heads of cardiac services in all of Canada. Dr. C gave evidence that in addition to interacting with all male cardiac surgeons, she interacted with interventionists, cardiac surgery trainees and ICU attendings, all of whom were exclusively male. Of the anesthesiologists Dr. C worked with, only a quarter were female.

One might have expected that having the only female head of cardiac surgery in Canada would be something that a teaching hospital such as HHS would have celebrated. This was not Dr. C’s experience.

Dr. C testified about the challenges of being the only female surgeon within her group and being in a leadership position on top of that. She said it was difficult to form bonds with the male surgeons. A senior nurse testified that that there were cliques among certain cardiac surgeons, and Dr. C was perceived to be an outsider.

Another witness, a male colleague who led a team of cardiac surgical assistants, testified about a men’s ski trip that he hosted at his condominium each year. He stated that it was not an official event for the cardiac group but it became very popular and many in the group wanted to attend. He confirmed that the ski trip was for men only. Dr. C was excluded.

In 2014, a review of the Cardiac Surgery Service was conducted. Dr. C made numerous attempts to understand what precipitated the review. The review was apparently initiated by “grumblings” about Dr. C’s leadership style, but no details were provided.

During a meeting between Dr. C and the Surgeon-in-Chief prior to the formal review, the Surgeon-in-Chief advised Dr. C that he valued her work and found her to be a straight shooter. He hoped that the official review would be concluded positively, perhaps with just a suggestion that Dr. C needed to be “fluffier” and “maybe just soften” her approach.

Dr. C’s review involved interviews with Dr. C’s team and others. The notes of the interviews were in evidence.

The negative comments were vague and obviously gender biased. They involved statements like: “unfriendly body language”, “some surgeons are scared of her”, “like a mother telling her children what to do”, “they don’t see the soft side of her”, “bully”.

The positive comments were substantive, specific and relevant to the job. They included things like “respectful”, “tries to balance”, “considerate of other services”, “cost conscious”, “very responsive”, “firm but appropriate”, “concerned about safety and quality”, “works well with cardiac surgery nurses”, “very fair”, “cancels herself before others”, “very democratic”, “very well respected by everybody”, “listens”.

The reviewer did not address or consider Dr. C’s views that the negative feedback may have been the product of a gender bias. In fact, the reviewer felt “it was not right” for Dr. C to raise gender as an issue in the course of the review.

It was, of course, discriminatory to fail to take seriously (or in this case at all) Dr. C’s comments about the relationship between her gender and perceptions about her leadership. It was a further act of discrimination to not reappoint Dr. C as the head of the service, but rather open the position to applicants at large. Not surprisingly, Dr. C did not apply. Instead, she raised (albeit informally) the issue of gender bias in the decision to not reappoint with the internal Human Rights and Inclusion Specialist. Dr. C was then met with yet another breach of her rights, when the specialist failed to properly investigate the issue of gender bias as a factor in the events leading up to the review, the review process, and the ultimate decision not to reappoint.

While Dr. C was ultimately vindicated by the tribunal’s findings, there are no winners in this sad saga. The decision stands as yet another reminder of the work that remains ahead of us on the path toward gender parity.

About the Author

Una Radoja is a partner with Harper Grey and is recognized as a leader of the next generation of Canadian lawyers. Una generously gives of her time and expertise for the betterment of the legal profession and the broader community. Passionate about making an impact, Una has joined a number of boards including that of Fertile Future working with them so that cancer patients fighting for their lives don’t lose out on future parenthood. As Chair of Harper Grey’s Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging Committee, Una spearheads efforts to identify, enhance and implement best practices in all areas of diversity. Una vigorously acts and advocates to expand possibilities for women in law through mentorship and as co-founder of “Life in Law”.

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