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Female surgeon accuses Hopkins of gender discrimination

A female surgeon and former faculty member at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine filed a federal lawsuit Monday alleging she faced “persistent and corrosive gender bias” during her employment that culminated in her termination this year.

Kimberley Eden Steele came to Johns Hopkins as a fellow in 2005 and later joined the medical staff and began teaching at the medical school, according to the complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. She worked primarily at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.

Steele alleges that she faced “sexualized comments and conduct” and was subjected to “a steady and long campaign to punish her for getting out of line” when she raised concerns about her treatment. She was given a terminal two-year contract in 2017 and her last day was Dec. 15.

The lawsuit alleges gender discrimination and retaliation under state and federal law, as well as breach of contract, tortious interference and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

A spokeswoman for Johns Hopkins Medicine said Tuesday that the organization is “committed to providing a diverse and supportive environment for all faculty and staff” but declined to comment on the specifics of the litigation.

Throughout her time at Hopkins, Steele “faced stereotyped expectations and attitudes as well as inappropriate conduct,” including that of young male surgeons who left to socialize with senior male colleagues and expected Steele to remain behind to work, as well as the use of “sexually-charged language” by male supervisors and uncomfortable advances from male colleagues, according to the complaint.

Steele also claims when she announced her pregnancy in 2008 she was told that “women were never good surgeons once they had children” and that having children would ruin her career. During her pregnancy, Steele alleges she was stereotyped as “emotional” and had her skills called into question by coworkers and supervisors. She returned from maternity leave to find that she had reduced access to surgical time and that some of her patients had been reassigned, according to the complaint. Steele alleges similar treatment during her second pregnancy and after her return.

In 2011, Steele changed her schedule to pursue a master’s degree through a grant program and alleges surgical leadership at Bayview made unreasonable demands on her time due to “resentment” of the professional development she had arranged with the help of a senior female colleague. She claims the male supervisors at Bayview “continued to erect barriers to (her) success” and steered patients away from her to diminish her practice, according to the complaint. After a meeting at which Steele complained about her treatment, a male supervisor allegedly called her into his office and said he would “make (her) life hell.”

In 2015, one of Steele’s children became seriously ill and in 2016 she was required to take family leave to care for him, according to the complaint. During her leave, Steele was called into a meeting and accused of being disruptive.

When she asked to extend her leave at the end of 2016, she was allowed to do so but was told her faculty position and clinical privileges could not be guaranteed on her return, according to the complaint. Due to the offered terms, Steele chose to arrange for care for her son and returned to work, where she alleges her grant funds had been misused and her research program taken over by others.

In May 2017, Steele was given a terminal two-year contract and told that she had failed to assimilate back into the department after her leave and had a history of failing to abide by department rules, according to the complaint. Over the next two years, Steele was told she could “earn” her way back into the department but alleges she continued to face biased treatment.

Steele filed a charge of discrimination in March 2018 and claims that the department retaliated and that the overall atmosphere at Hopkins “remained stubbornly biased,” according to the complaint. She was required to stop seeing patients in spring 2019 and her research activities ended on Dec. 15, 2019. Steele also believes outside job opportunities went cold after potential employers spoke with Hopkins leadership.

Steele is represented by Bruce M. Luchansky and Joseph B. Wolf of Luchansky Millman in Towson and Ellen J. Zucker and Aaron S. Welo of Burns & Levinson LLP in Boston.

The case is Kimberley Eden Steele M.D., Ph.D. v. The Johns Hopkins Health System Corporation et al., 1:19-cv-03628.

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