Harassment based on gender can take many forms. In hospital settings or in medical school, a wide range of inappropriate behaviors have been observed. Sometimes it is hard to establish what path to take when you perceive you may have been a victim of sexual harassment.
First of all, we need a definition of harassment. Do repeated microaggressions constitute harassment? What about nonverbal behaviors that tend to objectify or exclude women? How do we draw the line between unwanted sexual attention and unwelcome sexual advances, between behaviors that make female doctors and medical students feel uncomfortable and overt assault?
There are many ‘silent’ forms of gender harassment. Take for example a young female surgeon who endures sexual coercion; she knows if she provides sexual favors to a male authority figure, her career will advance, and if she doesn’t, it will stagnate. How can she prove that? Sometimes this type of behaviors require few words and leave no paper trails. Women in that kind of position are extremely vulnerable. This is why they need more protection.
For Katherine Sharkey, an assistant dean at Brown’s Warren Alpert Medical School, “Not all sexual harassment is the same.” Sharkey has presented the example of a resident having to hear dirty jokes from a colleague vs. a lead investigator who promises more research funding in exchange for sex. “Both behaviors should be addressed, but they warrant different consequences,” she explains.
When it comes to harassment during medical residencies, reporting appears to be surprisingly low. In a 2017 questionnaire, only 21 percent of medical school graduates who were victims of harassment said they had reported the misconduct. When asked why they had failed to report it, 37 percent said they believed there would be no consequences, 57 percent said they didn’t think the incident was “important enough to report,” while 28 percent didn’t talk for “fear of reprisal.”
As a resident, you crucially need things recommendation letters and referrals from your superiors. If you report them for sexual harassment, you may be putting your career at risk. Thus, the more power and authority a perpetrator has, the more protected he is.
Some people are considered, “untouchable,” the Association of American Medical Colleges’ David Acosta explains. “As physicians climb up the ladder, the rules change. You have a faculty member who is very valuable to the institution, or a director who brings in revenue from grants, or a principal investigator who holds a Nobel prize. They seem untouchable. But we know that we can and must change that perception.”
Even today, after the #Metoo movement took America by storm, it is only after the press exposes a perpetrator that they lose their seemingly absolute power. It took a New York Times story about his harassment of a junior colleague and a petition signed by over 1,000 students, alumni, and professors to get Yale’s decorated cardiologist Michael Simons off his endowed chair.
It is easier for cases like that of Simons to occur in academic medicine than in other fields. Research has shown that when there are few women in positions of power, a culture of harassment is more likely to develop. In medical schools across the country, only 15 percent of department chairs and 16 percent of deans are female.
For Sharonne N. Hayes, who heads the Mayo Clinic’s Diversity and Inclusion office, the more women there are in leadership, the faster the environment will change: “Having a great female leader has downstream direct and indirect effects to help mitigate sexual harassment.”
For some insiders, sexual harassment in medicine is as bad as in Hollywood. Men are usually in power, and women are subjected to all kinds of harassment, which they feel they have to endure if they want to get ahead.
The case of Alan Schenne is a good example to illustrate just how benevolent the system can be with perpetrators. The 53-year-old doctor, licensed in Iowa and Arizona, recently surrendered his Iowa license after co-workers accused him of sending them sexually-charged text messages. As far as we know, he may still be practising in Arizona, and he only paid a $5,000 fine.
It takes a lot of unspoken pacts of silence, complicit attitudes, and a lack of understanding of one’s rights, for this type of rampant misconduct to flourish. As our society changes and evolves, universities and hospitals across the nation are slowly trying to implement trainings and policies that can finally change the culture of harassment and dissipate the toxic environments that surround female medical students and professionals today.
Do you think were harassed at work or by a co-worker? Visit our workplace harassment FAQ page for more information. Ready to see if you have a case? Contact us online or by phone at 877.858.8018. All inquiries are protected by the attorney-client privilege and kept CONFIDENTIAL. (There is never a fee for a consultation.)