There are few settings so rife with abusive behavior by people in positions of authority as medical residencies. The culture, insiders say, prompts residents to view harassment as a necessary evil for ‘rookies’; if they can endure it, they’ll make it in the competitive environment of medicine. One respondent said in a recent survey, “the thing about residency training is everyone is having human rights violations. So, it’s just like tolerable sexual harassment.”
A woman in a male-dominated specialty, such as surgery or emergency medicine, is more likely to experience sexual harassment perpetrated by one of her superiors. A 2005 study revealed that many students choose their specialty based on their perceptions of which are the least harassing environments. A 2002 study, on the other hand, found that academic medical centers showed the highest incidence of sexual harassment in medicine.
In the summer of 2018, The National Academies Press published a report on Sexual Harassment of Women in science, engineering, and medicine. According to the document’s conclusions, there are four main risk factors for sexual harassment in medicine:
- Positions of authority largely occupied by men
- Tolerance for sexual harassment ingrained in the organizational culture (Complaints are seldom taken seriously, perpetrators hardly ever sanctioned, little protection against retaliation)
- Hierarchical relationships in educational settings where the faculty has excessive power over students and residents
- Considerable time spent in isolated environments, such as laboratories and hospital wards
Academic medicine appears to be the most fertile ground for gender harassment. Researchers found that female medical students experience more of this type of harassment, perpetrated by trainers and professors, than female students in science or engineering. But harassment doesn’t always occur in the same direction, and there is also an incidence of faculty-on-faculty and student-on-faculty harassment.
One of the most unique aspects of sexual harassment in medicine has to do with the fact that female trainees and faculty are also harassed by patients and their families at academic medical centers. Thus, if you are a female student or professional in the field of medicine, you are exposed to sexual harassment on three different fronts.
The National Academies’ researchers wrote that “the cumulative effect of sexual harassment is a significant and costly loss of talent.” According to a professor of obstetrics who co-authored the study, “Doctors in training work in high-stress, life-or-death situations, often late into the evening when hallways are empty… It’s a perfect storm for aggressive sexual behavior and harassment.”
While the publication of the report prompted prestigious institutions such as the Mayo Clinic to launch sexual harassment prevention programs, there is a long road ahead if we want American hospitals and medical schools to become safe havens where everyone from residents to professors and department heads can be treated with respect, fairness, and equality.
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