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A Surgeon Cuts to the Heart of the Matter

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As one of the nation’s first female neurosurgeons, Dr. Frances Conley, a professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine, had an outstanding 17-year reputation as both an academician and a physician. It therefore came as a shock to students and professors last June when the 51-year-old doctor announced her resignation, charging that she had endured a career-long pattern of sexual harassment from colleagues and superiors within her male-dominated profession.

Conley’s move sparked a nationwide discussion about sexism in the workplace and led Stanford’s medical school to rethink its policies. At the urging of colleagues, Conley rejoined the faculty in September because, she says, “I felt that I could do more from the inside than out.” Against the backdrop of the Clarence Thomas debate, Conley spoke about her experiences with reporter Margaret Emery.

What are some examples of problems with male colleagues that you experienced at Stanford?

I was asked to go to bed, but it was always in jest, for effect. Unlike what many women have experienced, it was always said with four or five people around. The men wanted to see if I would put up with the rules of the club—a club that had always allowed men to use women as they wanted to. It was not harmful physically, but mentally it was disgusting.

Why didn’t you ever formally complain about this behavior?

Often when something offensive would happen, I would talk to people about it, and the advice was always, “Don’t worry about it. That’s just the way the men are.” You don’t make an issue out of it. You don’t tell them, “That’s disgusting.” I never did. But I would today.

What are some other examples of sexism that you experienced?

If I had a different opinion than my male colleagues, they said it was because I was suffering from premenstrual syndrome or “on the rag.”

Another is being called Honey by a colleague. If I go to a hardware store and the 60-year-old proprietor says, “Here’s your change, Honey,” that doesn’t bother me at all.

But if I’m in an examining room with a patient, and a male doctor says, “Hi, Hon, can you come here for a minute?”—he’s establishing me as being lower in the hierarchy. And what does the patient think: “Gee, are they having an affair?”

Do you recognize similarities between your decision to go public and Anita Hill’s speaking out?

If we’re ever going to change things, we’re going to have to make sure that people in leadership positions understand the issues. Women across this country understand why Anita Hill stayed at her job, why she kept phoning Thomas. They understand that you need to put up with harassment, that this is your job and your life. But men don’t understand, because they have options that are far better and far greater.

What effect does your and Anita Hill’s coming forward have, in general, on the problem of sexist treatment on the job?

I think it opened up a window of opportunity, though I am ultimately pessimistic about how long that window will remain open.

How would you advise women to handle sexism?

Over the years, when women came to me for advice, I said, “Look before you make an issue of it. Do some risk-benefit analysis, because you could still derail your career.” Ask yourself, “Is what I’m about to make an issue of important enough to risk ruining my career?” I think that women still have to think carefully.