One in three women faculty in academic medicine experience sexual harassment

Half of the women faculty in some departments are harassed, according to a report from the Association of American Medical Colleges. Some don’t feel safe reporting harassment.

In the world of academic medicine, women faculty have suffered sexual harassment for years, and it continues to be a problem.

One out of three women faculty members (34%) have experienced sexual harrassment within the previous 12 months, according to a recent report from the Association of American Medical Colleges.

More than half (52.6%) of the women faculty in two departments, emergency medicine and anesthesiology, said they experienced sexual harassment. Those departments had the highest rates of harassment. Nearly half of the women faculty in pharmacology (47.7%) said they experienced sexual harassment.

At a time when healthcare leaders have said America needs more doctors, and a more diverse physician workforce, the AAMC report’s findings are beyond troubling.

“We cannot deliver the best education, medical care, and scientific advancements while harmful, often illegal, behaviors are tolerated — and we need the best of academic medicine in our current environment,” the report stated.

Disturbingly, the AAMC report concluded that some academic faculty who are harassed didn’t feel safe reporting it and weren’t confident the institution would resolve the issue.

Even in the academic departments with the most female faculty - OB-GYN and pediatrics - roughly a third of women faculty said they experienced sexual harassment, the AAMC report stated.

“Academic institutions must be bold and brave in eliminating harassment by addressing the foundational cultural traits at their institutions that continue to allow it to persist, such as tolerance for harmful behavior, acts of retribution, rigid hierarchy, and dominating behavior, often by men,” the report stated.

The findings suggest there has been little progress since a 2018 report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine found sexual harassment was rampant in academic medicine.

Even in the two departments with the lowest rates of harassment, urology and radiology, roughly one in five women said they have experienced sexual harassment. In radiology, 21.6% of women faculty have been sexually harassed, while 20.7% of women faculty in urology reported harassment.

While women experience the brunt of the sexual harassment in academic medicine, male faculty suffer harassment as well, the study found. The report found 12.5% of male faculty reported sexual harassment within the past year. Overall, 22% of faculty said they have been sexually harassed.

Types and toll of harassment

Faculty participating in the AAMC survey were asked several questions about harassment. They include:

  • Hearing sexist stories or jokes they found offensive (19.7% of women, 9.6% of men)
  • Offensive remarks about their appearance or sexual activities (7.4% of women, 3.0% of men)
  • Insulted or treated with condescension because of their gender (24% of women, 2.8% of men).

Female and male victims of sexual harassment in academic medicine say it takes a steep toll.

“Faculty of all genders who experienced harassment were less engaged, less satisfied with their medical school as a place to work, and less likely to stay at their institution,” the report stated.

Faculty identified as LGB+ were more likely to experience sexual harassment than heterosexual faculty, the report found. About 42% of LGB+ women and 21% of LGB+ men reported sexual harassment. Among heterosexuals, 33% of women and 12% of men said they were sexually harassed. (The report uses “LGB+”, the authors said, because questions focused on sexual orientation and not gender identity).

Tackling the problem

Academic institutions should implement zero tolerance policies to address sexual harassment, and recruits should be notified that previous employers will be asked about any prior incidents, the report suggests.

Institutions should also assemble multi-disciplinary teams to prevent sexual harassment. The teams should include the chief medical officer and members from the legal, human resources and faculty affairs teams, among others.

Department chairs must also be held accountable and required to provide plans to prevent sexual harassment and how those efforts mesh with promoting diversity, equity and inclusion, the report stated. New department chairs should be trained on sexual harassment prevention.

Institutions must spend the money on hiring trained investigators to deal with reports of sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination, the report stated. Those investigators should be empowered to find and report on common themes or repeat offenders in harassment complaints.

Institutions with parent universities should also coordinate efforts on preventing sexual harassment. Medical colleges should also examine the university policies that could be adapted.