2 medical experts allege harassment, bullying, exploitation at U of O

A pair of Egyptian-born medical experts allege the University of Ottawa is unfairly trying to eliminate their jobs and that their manager subjected them to a sustained barrage of harassment, according to two recently filed human rights complaints.

Nermine Youssef and Safaa El Bialy say experiences caused struggle with mental health

Safaa El Bialy, left, and Nermine Youssef have filed complaints with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario against the University of Ottawa, alleging they're underpaid and harassed by their manager. (Francis Ferland/CBC News)

A pair of Egyptian-born medical experts allege the University of Ottawa is unfairly trying to eliminate their jobs and that their manager subjected them to a sustained barrage of harassment, according to two recently filed human rights complaints. 

Nermine Youssef and Safaa El Bialy both worked in support staff roles in the university's department of innovation in medical education. However, they said they were asked to perform the work of associate professors, but with less pay.

When they tried to reconcile the pay gap and job "misclassification," they were instead met with efforts to undermine their work, according to two complaints filed earlier this summer with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.

"I was teaching, I was doing research and I was actually supervising students' scholarly activities for eight years," said El Bialy.

The duo find themselves trapped in a quagmire without union support. Despite the work they've done, the professors' union won't represent them because they aren't designated as professors.

Meanwhile, the union they belong to "will not prevent support work from being assigned to one of its members," their complaints state.

System takes advantage of international grads: complaints

In an interview with CBC News, both medical experts said they were initially ignorant to what their jobs entailed as neither were provided a copy of their job descriptions after they were hired. 

Both say the university externally portrayed them as professors. 

They were called "professor[s] on promotional materials" and both were "allowed to be nominated for awards given exclusively to professors," according to the tribunal complaints. 

But because they weren't hired as professors "the university essentially retained the flexibility of downgrading and altering [their] duties at any time, while capitalizing upon the precarity of [their] positions to keep [them] in limbo," the complaints said. 

Before resettling in Canada, El Bialy held a full-time professor position at Cairo University in Egypt. Youssef worked as an assistant lecturer at Ain Shams University.

Since 2011, El Bialy said she taught up to four classes a semester while conducting research.

Youssef joined the university in 2006 as a PhD student in cellular molecular medicine. According to her complaint, she was hired for a "full-time teaching position" in 2017. 

"My colleague and I are falling into the cracks of a system that is designed to exploit international medical graduates to do the job with less recognition and less pay," said El Bialy.

In a statement, the university said it "strongly disagrees with the allegations which have been brought forward in these proceedings, and will continue to seek a prompt determination of these claims through the processes of the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario."

El Bialy said she taught up to four classes a semester and conducted research at the University of Ottawa. (Francis Ferland/CBC News)

Abuse from managers, complainants allege

In October 2019, shortly after the appointment of a new acting department head, Bialy and Youssef were told their job descriptions were being reviewed for modification.

They alleged Christopher Ramnanan, the department head, hoped to turn their jobs into administrative positions. 

The move was a shock, they said in an interview with CBC.

They said they faced consistent harassment from Ramnanan. He began using "bullying" tactics while working to change their job descriptions, the complaints allege. 

In her complaint, El Bialy said Ramnanan shared her health information with other faculty members and urged her to take time off for minor issues. 

"Many times I was told your position is a very good position and you have to be happy with it. Any international medical graduates envy you for your position and would like to have a position like yours," she said.

Youssef wrote in her complaint that at times, she would hide in her office with the lights turned off or run to the cafeteria to avoid her manager. (Francis Ferland/CBC News)

According to her complaint, Youssef alleged she was constantly badgered by Ramnanan, including one time when he berated her in front of staff and students in the anatomy lab. Another time, she alleged he shut down a lecture she was set to deliver in English, claiming her accent was too rough and hard to understand. Youssef is fluently trilingual in English, French and Arabic.

At one point, when Youssef raised Ramnanan's conduct with a human resources representative, she was told "there is a lot of racism, but no one can control racism and racists," her complaint alleged. 

Eventually, Youssef's stress reached such a level that she "would switch off the lights in her office or flee to the cafeteria whenever she heard Dr. Ramnanan approaching," her complaint said. 

Their complaints state Ramnanan's behaviour was reported to the university but he faced no disciplinary action.

Repeated attempts by CBC News to contact Ramnanan went unanswered.

Stress leave, anxiety and depression

These situations led Youssef and El Bialy to both go on stress leave. Youssef said she now suffers from anxiety and depression. 

"I don't sleep well. I'm anxious sometimes when I open my emails. I expect emails to fire me," she said. "I've had a headache for one year."

Both said they are uncertain about their futures. Despite their teaching histories at the university, neither got their teaching recognized in their employee records, and said that means less seasoned candidates are considered more viable for available professor jobs.

"I don't have any credit for my teaching. I teach every piece of the anatomy and embryology and have some teaching on the clinical side," said Youssef.

"We want respect and dignity."


  • A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Youssef was giving a lecture in French when her accent was allegedly questioned. In fact, her lecture was in English.
    Aug 12, 2021 12:28 PM ET

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