As the World Airway Management annual meeting got underway in Amsterdam earlier this month, the conference of about 1800 physicians, trainees, and specialists was quickly roiled in controversy over a series of sexually inappropriate comments by a high-profile speaker.
Many attendees took to Twitter to call out the presenter for making jokes about the female G-spot and showing images of a man choking a woman. In response, the official account for the conference tweeted out a curt apology.
This controversy is part of an unfortunate pattern, said Esther Choo, associate professor of emergency medicine at Oregon Health & Science University and a founding member of Time’s Up Healthcare. This incident is the latest example of how these conferences are still struggling to accommodate an audience of increasingly diverse physicians, Choo said.
“I see it happen fairly routinely,” she noted. “It’s just an indicator of the overall culture that we have at scientific conferences and other forums where that kind of language and imagery is not seen as unacceptable.”
The conference in Amsterdam was only the second World Airway Management Meeting (WAMM). It was hosted by the Difficult Airway Society (DAS), the Society for Airway Management (SAM), and the European Airway Management Society (EAMS).
On the first full day of the conference, Thursday, November 14, as many as 1000 attendees showed up to watch the presentations on the main stage, according to Chris Elton, an obstetric anesthesiologist at Leicester Royal Infirmary in England, who was in attendance.
During the second main session, Massimiliano Sorbello, an anesthesiologist at the University of Catania in Italy and board member of the European Airway Management Society, gave a talk titled, “The place of Cricoid Pressure / positive pressure ventilation in 2019.” He started by equating finding the airway to finding the “female G-spot,” several attendees confirmed for Medscape Medical News. Later in the presentation, while discussing the two-handed technique for cricoid pressure, Sorbello showed a black and white photo of a man with his hands around a woman’s throat.
The reaction in the room was mixed, according to Andrew Weatherall, acting medical director of CareFlight, a nonprofit aeromedical organization. “A few people around me gave some audible version of ‘What the . . . ?’ but I also heard plenty of laughter,” Weatherall wrote in an email to Medscape Medical News.
On Twitter, several female attendees quickly made it clear how they felt about Sorbello’s comments.
“Holy f*ck a joke about the female G spot and now about choking your wife. WTAF,” tweeted Karen Stacey (@karenstacey82), an anesthesia trainee in the United Kingdom. “I would suggest the rest of the speakers for the conference take a step back & consider their considerable professional female audience and remember that we are in 2019. Just stop. #WAMMsterdam.”
Holy f*ck a joke about the female G spot and now about choking your wife. WTAF.
I would suggest the rest of the speakers for the conference take a step back & consider their considerable professional female audience and remember that we are in 2019. Just stop.
— 😷 Karen 🕷 (@karenstacey82) November 14, 2019
“Now a joke about choking your wife. But it is ok because it is a joke. That makes it fine,” wrote Natalie Silvey (@silv24), also an anesthesia trainee in the United Kingdom. “As someone who has been choked by an ex partner. It isn’t a joke. It is never a joke. #WAMMsterdam.”
Now a joke about choking your wife. But it is ok because it is a joke. That makes it fine.
As someone who has been choked by an ex partner. It isn’t a joke. It is never a joke. #WAMMsterdam
— Natalie Silvey (Stay at home – save lives) (@silv24) November 14, 2019
Many others, including Elton and Weatherall, chimed in on Twitter to say they also felt the comments were inappropriate.
Then, Silvey tweeted: “Dear organizing committee of @WAMM_2019 — I just had to leave a session because of the inappropriate content. This needs tackling urgently — such comments should never be allowed to stand unchallenged and shouldn’t be said in the first place #WAMMsterdam.”
Dear organising committee of @WAMM_2019 – I just had to leave a session because of the inappropriate content. This needs tackling urgently – such comments should never be allowed to stand unchallenged and shouldn’t be said in the first place #WAMMsterdam
— Natalie Silvey (Stay at home – save lives) (@silv24) November 14, 2019
In response, the official WAMM account consistently responded with the same message: “On behalf of WAMM if any offence was taken by any of the comments or slides presented this morning we sincerely apologise on behalf of the WAMM organising committee.”
On behalf of WAMM if any offence was taken by any of the comments or slides presented this morning we sincerely apologise on behalf of the WAMM organising committee.
— World Airway Management Meeting (@WAMM_2019) November 14, 2019
This set off a new tweetstorm.
“Hello you seem confused about what’s an appropriate apology here,” stated @dr_ashwitt in a tweet that listed other ways the conference organizers could address the issue.
“This is a ‘sorry if you feel offended’ reply. . . Poor use of your airway imo,” wrote @TharushaGunawa4.
“This is not enough, you need to address the behaviour and make it clear it is not acceptable,” tweeted @lozzlemcfozzle.
For Choo, this “classic nonapology” was the most disappointing part of the controversy. “I think part of the growth of an organization in this area is being receptive to criticism and feedback,” she said.
As far as Weatherall and Elton are aware, the conference organizers have issued no additional statement or acknowledgement of the incident. The organizers, including the two conference directors, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
“I think some people simply used some contents of my slides just exaggerating or intentionally misunderstanding their meaning to gain visibility and popularity,” wrote Sorbello in an email to Medscape Medical News. He went on to say that he had nothing to add to the official comment by the WAMM organizers, although he did post an apology of sorts on Twitter.
I apologize if it looked like this, but I didn’t see any intimate violence if not a screenshot from some (funny) movie, and I didn’t mean to be offensive or irrespective.. that was just a joke and i thought it could not even be misunderstood! Again, my apologies!
— Max Sorbello (@SorbelloMax) November 15, 2019
Silvey, Stacey, and several others who protested the comments on Twitter declined to be interviewed for this story. Choo said while she views it as “courageous” to call out this behavior on social media, she thinks many people view talking to the media as going one step too far and potentially risking professional retaliation.
“You don’t want to be that person who brought public negative attention to an organization that represents you,” Choo said. “You don’t want to be labeled as a troublemaker.”
To tackle this issue head on, Choo recommended that conference organizers create clear and strict guidelines for speakers and presenters. The guidelines should be provided and reiterated at every step of the process of registering for and attending a conference, as well as enforce clear repercussions for not following codes of conduct. Increasing diversity among conference organizers and presenters can also help begin to address this problem, she said.
For days after the incident, the conversation continued online. One anesthesiologist (Tanya, @GongGasGirl) summed up how she and others watching the drama unfold felt: “Dismissing concerns as ‘overly sensitive’, ‘can’t take a joke’, ‘oh he’s like that’ ‘but he’s an expert’ is not enough in 2019. This is what women drs deal with all the time in the workplace. We are tired of it.”