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Increased awareness hasn’t eliminated the problem for female physicians
There are more women physicians in the U.S. in 2016 than ever before, and even while the myriad of noble accomplishments by female doctors would make Elizabeth Blackwell proud, many of these women still face harassment by both patients and fellow doctors.
When asked to share harassment stories, female physicians, unfortunately, had plenty. Here are a few examples, although names were removed to protect the privacy of the doctors.
One family practitioner said the father of a young patient spit on her because he didn’t think she knew what she was talking about because she was a woman. A doctor working in a Texas hospital says she constantly deals with patients who address her in sexist and misogynist ways, and a young doctor at a hospital in Pennsylvania says older male doctors often call her things like “honey” and “sweetheart.”
Reshma Jagsi, MD, D.Phil, recently conducted a study among high-achieving physician-scientists and discovered nearly a third of women reported experiencing sexual harassment in their workplace.
“This is a sobering reminder that our society has a long way to go before we achieve gender equity,” Jagsi,associate professor and deputy chair of radiation oncology at the University of Michigan Medical School, said in the study.
While this study surveyed those in academic medicine, according to the experts, this way of thinking is prevalent in practice-based medicine as well.
Emily Martin, the National Women’s Law Center’s vice president for workplace justice and an expert on sexual harassment, notes the study is on par with what’s happening in industries around the world, including physicians working in hospitals, in private practice and specialists.
“Recent analysis suggests that doctors are experiencing sexual harassment at rates comparable to what we understand the larger population is experiencing,” she says. “Based on studies we have seen, it seems to be at least one in four women and as many as 60% of women in some occupations are experiencing sexual harassment on the job. Doctors, unfortunately, are not exempt from that pattern.”
Martin notes there are numerous ways to define sexual harassment-from the classic quid-pro-quo (I don’t think we really need to define it then-do you) to simply just working in an environment with a lot of sexual overtures or commenting on someone’s appearance.
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“Another way is less sexual and more gender based hostility,” she says. “For example, using a lot of gendered epithets in attacking somebody. Or expressing someone is unwanted or doesn’t fit in through a gendered series of attacks.”
Mark Van Brussel, a partner at Carothers DiSante & Freudenberger LLP, which represents California employers in issues related to harassment, notes the rapidly changing nature of gender relations in the workplace is a significant challenge facing medical employers today.
“Physicians, in their relations with each other, with staff, and with patients, must be increasingly sensitive to how their actions or comments may be perceived by others, or later judged by the media, an agency bureaucrat, or a jury in our current highly sensitized and highly politicized culture,” he says in an email.
He recommends that employers distribute pamphlets to their employees and post notices in the workplace assuring employees of the employer’s commitment to providing a workplace free from discrimination, harassment and retaliation.
To help control harassment in the workplace, Martin says it’s important that there’s a commitment from the very top of the hospital or healthcare organization.
“Leaders need to be vocally and publically committed to ensuring that a workplace is respectful and that there will be real remedies and prompt action in the event of sexual harassment,” the National Women’s Law Center’s Martin says.
She also suggests a critical element is to have a clear anti-harassment policy in place, as well as clear complaint procedures, plus a variety of ways they can complain, so it’s not just going through a supervisor.
For example, someone in HR is more likely to have some distance from the issue, so someone experiencing harassment might feel safer talking about it with them.
With the availability of online interactive training, even smaller practices should consider educating their physicians and staff periodically on how to recognize and avoid conduct that may cross the line between acceptable and unacceptable.
“While women today make up about half of all medical students and women physicians are practicing in greater numbers than ever before, women are still relatively newcomers in large numbers in the medical profession,” Martin says. “Often pioneers face some hostility when they enter a field and that’s sadly still the case in the medical profession.”