Published May 17, 2016
For women in U.S. medical research, sexual harassment is less common than 20 years ago, but it was still experienced by 30 percent of those responding to a new survey, compared to just 4 percent of men, researchers say.
In 1995, more than half of women academic medical faculty surveyed said they'd been harassed, compared to 5 percent of men. But those women had gone to medical school when less than 10 percent of the class was female, noted the lead author of a research letter in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
"The broader literature on workplace harassment suggests that such experiences are more common when there is substantial gender imbalance in the workplace," said Dr. Reshma Jagsi of the Department of Radiation Oncology at the University of Michigan.
"I really thought that harassment would be much less commonly experienced by women in our sample, who went to medical school when the proportion of women among medical students had exceeded 40 percent," she told Reuters Health by email.
The researchers mailed surveys to all 1,719 new recipients of K08 and K23 grants from the National Institutes of Health in 2006 to 2009. These career-development awards provide support for younger investigators focused on biomedical and patient-oriented topics.
Just over 1,000 survey recipients responded. On average, they were 43 years old, 46 percent were female and 71 percent were white.
Among women, 70 percent said they had perceived gender bias in the workplace and 66 percent had experienced it personally, including being left out of opportunities for professional advancement based on gender. That compared to 22 percent of men who were aware of gender bias at work and 10 percent who experienced it.
The sexual harassment experienced by 30 percent of women included unwanted sexual comments, attentions or advances by a superior or colleague. Almost half of these women said their sexual harassment experiences had also negatively affected their career advancement.
These numbers are not strikingly different from those found in surveys of women in other fields, Jagsi said.
"On the one hand, female physicians, like all physicians, are professionals with a privileged position in society and more power than many other workers, which one might think could insulate them to some degree against vulnerability to these sorts of experiences," Jagsi said. "On the other hand, large power differentials can exist between individuals in different positions in academic medicine, and that can increase the risks of having such experiences."
Even as more and more women enter medicine, there is a persistent culture of gender inequality in the workplace, said Dr. Sharon Straus of the University of Toronto, who was not part of the new study.
Other industries, like the financial industry, have more systematic approaches in place to deal with harassment in the workplace, Straus told Reuters Health, and other countries have made strides to deal with the issue in academic medicine.
In the U.K., the Athena SWAN Charter was established in 2005 to encourage and recognize commitment to advancing the careers of women in science, technology, engineering, math and medicine employment in higher education and research.
One thing that has helped to change the culture there, Straus notes, is that since 2011 the National Health Service has had a policy of not partnering with medical schools or faculties of medicine for biomedical research unless those institutions have earned at least the Athena SWAN Charter "Silver Award."
For individuals, "the big thing is to reach out and tell somebody, whether that's your immediate director or boss or whomever," Straus said. "A lot of times people don't feel empowered to report it," she said.
"I consider our results to be a sobering reminder of how far we as a society still have to go to achieve gender equity," Jagsi said.