The Almanac - 1998_04_08.conley.html

Issue date: April 08, 1998

Not one of the boys

Seven years ago, Dr. Frances Conley created a stir by describing the treatment of women at Stanford's medical school. Her book, 'Walking Out On The Boys,' will certainly renew the controversy.


"Silence has always been one of women's worst enemies."

The words are those of Stanford neurosurgeon Frances Conley, whose attempt to conquer that particularly insidious enemy seven years ago led to a close look at the university medical school's treatment of women and caused an uproar heard around the country.

Her decision in 1991 to abandon the tradition of silence and expose what she described as sexism, sexual harassment and failure of leadership in her corner of the rarefied world of academic medicine thrust her -- and Stanford University -- into the limelight of the growing national debate on sexism in the workplace.

But in breaking the silence she had kept since her early days as a medical student at Stanford in the early 1960s, Dr. Conley became, suddenly, "the enemy" in the eyes of a number of her colleagues. It was a decision that very nearly ruined a distinguished career in the medical school's neurosurgery division, and prompted serious soul-searching about her life and her responsibility to young women entering the profession after her.

That soul-searching led to, among other things, a "profound sense of guilt" -- a realization that her many years of going along with "the boys," sometimes participating fully in their demeaning antics in an attempt to belong, only helped perpetuate "the sexist climate medical students found abhorrent and were now fighting."

Telling her story

Seven years later, Dr. Conley is heading into what is likely to be another maelstrom with the release of her book, "Walking Out on the Boys," which will be hitting bookstores next week. It is sure to hit with a bang, telling her compelling story in detail -- in her own words this time, rather than those filtered and interpreted by the media. In "Walking Out," Dr. Conley, the first tenured female neurosurgeon in the country and a longtime Woodside resident, names names and cites specific incidents, some of which are sure to shock and disgust.

Giving numerous examples of recent incidents and formal complaints she says university officials have tried to sweep under the carpet, Dr. Conley charges that Stanford University and medical school administrators have done little since 1991 to change the climate of sexism and sexual harassment at the prestigious campus. Change, she insists, will come about only with new leadership, made up of people who are concerned with improving the work environment for "the betterment of all."

"Sexism is alive in my department and at this medical school, and its legacy has been passed, with the mantle of power, to another generation," she writes.

The book describes incidents ranging from extreme verbal abuse of nurses in operating rooms to derailing the careers of young female medical students and residents who fail to comply with sexual demands or who complain of inappropriate behavior. In between are incidents of aggressive groping and fondling of those too intimidated and powerless to protest, and the constant buzz of belittling comments that create a hostile workplace for women.

Overlaying the specific incidents, Dr. Conley says, is a prevailing attitude that women just aren't as good -- as smart, as competent -- as men, and therefore are not as deserving of mentoring and promotion.

Although she acknowledges that the next few months are likely to be "unpleasant" as a result of the book's release, she also notes she has been dealing with a number of colleagues' hostility for long enough to be used to it.

A historical legacy

Sitting in her well-lit office at the Palo Alto Veterans Health Care System hospital, where she is acting chief of staff, Frances Conley, 57, is thoughtful and measured as she responds to questions about her life, her career and her decision to write a book about her experiences.

She wrote the book, she says, not for revenge or catharsis, but "primarily to leave a historical legacy. ... I wanted to write an accurate reflection of what my life was like."

That story offers fascinating insights about the culture of the medical profession, which she describes as "an alluring world," a "unique world with a unique language." It's that uniqueness, she says, that "gives us the pedestals upon which we stand." And the prestigious nature of the profession adds to the shock in learning that the culture accepts the boorish, sexist behavior of men toward their female colleagues and patients, she says.

Evolution in thinking

The book also tracks in part the evolution in the thinking of Dr. Conley, who was on a steady path to professional success, with her own laboratories in which she was conducting brain tumor studies, when things turned sour for her in 1991. That was when her colleague, Dr. Gerald Silverberg, was deemed the likely choice to head the department of neurosurgery.

Prior to that time, she and Dr. Silverberg had a sometimes cordial relationship, but that had deteriorated by the time the department chairmanship was open.

In a move that could only have escalated tension between the two, Dr. Conley took action to try to prevent the appointment. After years of watching what she considered Dr. Silverberg's inappropriate behavior toward female doctors, nurses and students, Dr. Conley said she was convinced Dr. Silverberg's leadership of the department would only ensure that the sexist culture already in place would continue to thrive.

Dr. Silverberg, who is on sabbatical from Stanford, could not be reached for comment.

Interviewed by a search committee, Dr. Conley says she informed the members that she was not seeking the position, but advocated that someone from outside Stanford be found to head the department.

When the search committee was abruptly disbanded by then-medical school dean Dr. David Korn, and Dr. Silverberg was named to fill the spot, Dr. Conley resigned. It was May 1991.

Two days later the Medical Faculty Senate over which she presided met. The agenda, circulated a week before, included sexual harassment -- a complaint of a number of medical students. While many senate meetings barely managed to draw a quorum, this one was standing room only, and many students were determined to talk, citing incidents of alleged sexism and sexual harassment.

That, Dr. Conley says now, was a turning point. "It hit me like a blow. It taught me -- showed me that part of what had happened was my fault.

"Putting up with it condoned it."

Although her resignation was not widely known at the time, that was about to change. Dr. Conley wrote an opinion piece and submitted it to a number of newspapers.

In it, she identified neither Stanford nor people involved, but described a "club" for which she was "minus the appropriate gender identification that permits full membership." She described her workplace as having in place "a validated legacy of sexism, a role model for all men, that women are, indeed, inferior and expected to remain so."

When the San Francisco Chronicle came to her for an interview, she talked. The resulting article, she insists, was highly sensationalized, but even so, she was not prepared for the national media response that followed.

Although the reaction of many male colleagues was harsh and angry, Dr. Conley also received a tremendous outpouring of support and gratitude, not only from students and staff at Stanford but from all over the world.

In spite of Stanford's attempt at damage control, pressure mounted because of the continued media coverage of the Conley matter and other stories of sexual harassment breaking nationally.

In a shrewd maneuver, Dr. Conley rescinded her resignation in August, just weeks before it was to become effective. She remained, then, a presence at Stanford -- some would say a thorn in the side of the medical school leadership.

In February 1992, the announcement was made that Dr. Silverberg would not chair the department.

While her actions undeniably set the stage for Dr. Silverberg's fall, Dr. Conley notes in her book that there were also 20 "heroines," mostly nurses and some clerical staff, "who were willing to break a covenant of silence and tell the truth" during an investigation of Dr. Silverberg's alleged misconduct.

As for herself, she writes: "I am no heroine. I would never have challenged Gerry or raised the specter of ubiquitous sexism in the medical environment had it not been for Gerry's appointment to department chair. With that move, Dean Korn validated not only Gerry's behavior but also an old-fashioned template for success in academic medicine."

Up for promotion

Dr. Conley is now known not only for her outstanding skills as a brain surgeon, but as a speaker on women's rights in the workplace as well. After the 1991 events were taken up by the media, she received invitations from all over the country to speak about her experiences and her ideas for change.

The book will be seen by many as an act of courage not only because it will doubtless renew anger against her by some colleagues, but also because she is up for a permanent position as chief of staff of the Palo Alto Veterans Health Care System, affiliated with Stanford. An appointment to that post is expected to be made within weeks, if not days.

Coincidentally, "Walking Out" makes its appearance during another rough period for the medical school: In two separate actions last month, two female doctors filed lawsuits against the medical school.

Dr. Kate O'Hanlan, who has won a number of honors and was twice named one of the Bay Area's best doctors in a magazine poll of physicians, alleges in her lawsuit that Stanford discriminated against her because she is a lesbian.

And Dr. Amrita Dosanjh claims in her lawsuit that the school discriminated against her because she is a woman and is of East Indian descent.

Now working almost exclusively at the massive VA campus in Palo Alto, Dr. Conley has nurtured a personal life that is somewhat different from what it had been in 1991. Her hours are more predictable, she says, even though she rarely works less than 12 hours a day.

That leaves her more time to enjoy reading things other than medical journals, to pursue more interests for personal pleasure, and to be with her husband, Philip, who shares her interests in running and other sports.

Frances Krauskopf Conley was born at Stanford, the daughter of a Stanford professor emeritus in geochemistry and a former educator and counselor. Conrad and Kathryn Krauskopf, at one time residents of Ladera, now live again on the Stanford campus.

It was at Stanford that Dr. Conley met Philip, an international track and field competitor who had represented the United States in the javelin at the 1956 Olympics. She wanted to learn to throw the javelin, and sought him out as he was running warm-up laps on Stanford's athletic field. They were married the following summer.

When they met, he worked for Raychem, but eventually founded his own financial advising and consulting company.

Dr. Conley writes that her husband, tall and attractive, manages to garner all the attention when they go out together among people who don't know them -- and, she adds, she doesn't especially like being ignored.

"Only rarely am I asked whether or not I work," she writes. "At times at social affairs I am tempted to wear a T-shirt embossed with "I'm a brain surgeon -- if interested, ask!'"

© 1998 The Almanac. All Rights Reserved.