Feature

Women in medicine shout #MeToo about sexual harassment at work


 

Annette Katz didn’t expect to be part of a major social movement. She didn’t set out to take on a major health organization. But that all began to change when a coworker saw her fighting back tears and joined Katz to report to her union what amounted to a criminal sexual offense at a Cleveland Veterans Affairs Medical Center in 2012 and 2013.

Four years later, Katz, a licensed practical nurse at the hospital, testified in a court deposition that a male nursing assistant had shoved her into a linen closet and groped her and subjected her to an onslaught of lewd comments.

In speaking out and taking legal action, Katz joined a growing group of women who are combating sexual harassment in the medical field at every level, from patients’ bedsides to the executive boardroom.

Much as the #MeToo moment has raised awareness of sexual harassment in business, politics, media, and Hollywood, it is prompting women in medicine to take on a health system where workers have traditionally been discouraged from making waves and where hierarchies are ever-present and all-commanding. While the health care field overall has far more women than men, in many stations of power the top of the pyramid is overwhelmingly male, with women occupying the vast base.


In a recent survey, 30% of women on medical faculties reported experiencing sexual harassment at work within the past 2 years, said Reshma Jagsi, MD, who conducted the poll. That share is comparable to results in other sectors and, as elsewhere, in medicine it had been mostly taboo to discuss before last year.

“We know harassment is more common in fields where there are strong power differentials,” said Dr. Jagsi, director of the Center for Bioethics and Social Sciences in Medicine at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. “And we know medicine is very hierarchical.”

Workers in the health care and social assistance field reported 4,738 cases of sexual harassment from fiscal 2005 through 2015, eclipsed only by fields such as hospitality and manufacturing, where men make up a greater proportion of the workforce, according to data gathered by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

A Kaiser Health News review of dozens of legal cases across the U.S. shows similar patterns in the waves of harassment cases that have cropped up in other fields, from entertainment to sports to journalism: The harassers are typically male. The alleged harasser supervises or outranks the alleged victim. There are slaps on the butt, lewd comments, and requests for sex. When superiors are confronted with reports of bad behavior, the victims, mostly women, are disbelieved, demoted, or fired.


But recently, physicians have taken to Twitter using the #MeTooMedicine tag, sharing anecdotes and linking to blogs that chronicle powerful doctors harassing them or disrobing at professional conferences.

Women who work in cardiology recently told the cardiology trade publication TCTMD that they felt the problem was particularly widespread in their specialty, where females account for 14% of the physicians. A Los Angeles anesthesiologist made waves in a blog post urging “prettier” women to adopt a “professional-looking, even severe, hair style” to be taken seriously and to consider self-defense classes.

Among those speaking out is Jennifer Gunter, MD, a San Francisco obstetrician-gynecologist, who recently wrote a blog post about being groped in 2014 by a prominent colleague at a medical conference – even naming him.

“I think nothing will change unless people are able to name people and institutions are held accountable,” she said in an interview. “I don’t think without massive public discourse and exposure that things will change.”

Next Article: