Sexual harassment in the medical workplace

Sexual harassment in the workplace is an important topic to discuss, one that is all too often swept under the rug. I recently had an uncomfortable encounter with a clinician in the doctor’s lounge – I work at many hospitals so think I can say this pretty anonymously. He introduced himself, and asked me immediately if I was married. The way he did it – body language and demeanor, mostly – made me physiologically recoil, but I quickly regained my composure.

He continued the “too familiar for someone you have just met” small talk, some of it bordering on inappropriate, until I found a quick exit when another doctor walked in the lounge and said hello to him. I said, “it was nice to meet you.” I turned around, pushed the green exit button, and walked out the door.

When I checked in with my female colleague he had mentioned during the interaction a few days later, it turns out she has had some reportable incidences with him. I could handle occasional randy attendings during residency – most harmless, but some encounters are just plain creepy. My female friend did not report this clinician we both had negative encounters with, but she did at least document them in case she needed to support someone else, as well as confidentially notify the Chief of Staff. We wondered aloud that if he treated his colleagues this way, how must he treat his subordinates. She vowed to draw a tighter line if she had another strange encounter. “I wanted to maintain professionalism at the first incident, but I think I will have to be stronger with my words if it happens again.”

I was bouncing all this off of one of my friends from medical school, and she said, “I had two reportable incidences in medical school. But I didn’t report them. I’m sure I told you. Do you remember them?” I remembered one – the attending that tried to hold her hand in the hallway all the time. Once he lifted her shirt and tickled her belly. Luckily that was toward the end of her rotation, so she didn’t see him again. But I did not remember the other, she never told me.

“I didn’t? Maybe not. Probably because at the time, that fourth year medical student reported that doctor that reached up her skirt and grabbed her leg, and she was being raked over the coals. I didn’t want to be ‘that girl.’”

So tell me, I asked. Turns out, in a late night OR, she was being harassed by a surgeon. While she was placing a Foley catheter, he would say, in front of residents, “It looks like you really know how to handle a piece of meat.” Another time, he was pulling a kidney out of a patient, and referred to its erect-appearing state. “I’ll bet this is exactly the state you like your dick to be in.” She told me over the phone, “That was the point I had to step away from the table and leave the OR. It was too much. My body reacted by burning, and my eyes even got a little teary – not with sadness, but with shock and anger. “

She remembered later to me on the phone that she did bounce that encounter off of someone – her then boyfriend. He encouraged her to report it, and they argued about it. She reasoned that she would be off of the rotation in a week and it would be a non-issue. If she reported it, it would be an eternal issue – one that might affect her career trajectory. Later in the year when another female in the class sought her out about her experience on that rotation – she was having similar issues – my friend assented that it was a problem and felt a measure of guilt in being silent, which may have played a part in the continued abuse. Not your fault, I told her, which she already knew, but still. This type of stuff is a Catch-22. I will be interested to read comments about the situation. I can see both sides of the coin, and we both realize there is no easy answer. There is a right answer – to report. But not an easy one.

My current encounter with the clinician was not reportable, but disturbing. I immediately bounced it off of a lab supervisor, and another one the next day. I don’t like these things to be ignored, as they are all too often. Women (and men, fewer for sure, but I do know that it exists) who are sexually harassed often feel guilty somehow, like it was something they did, and are too embarrassed to discuss the incidence. It is especially tough when you are in a subordinate position, under someone who is grading you. So it continues. Our societal reaction to women who speak up often reinforces our silence. It makes me angry.

I wondered aloud to a male colleague – one that we let into the loop for support – about the women, I know they are out there, that encourage this behavior. This colleague is conventionally handsome, I was certain he had experience in this arena. “Does the fact that some women encourage this type of interaction, out of some sort of need or desire, make these men think they can behave this way to anyone?” He assured me that no, it was still inappropriate. “You should gauge a woman’s reaction, her comfort level, to this type of small talk. If it isn’t there – you back off immediately.” I guess some guys don’t get this. No brain to mouth filter. The charge from the inappropriate interaction is enough for them to continue without reserve. Women can overstep bounds as well. My one reportable incident in medical school, one that I did not report, was perpetrated by a woman.

Both my female colleagues (current and med school friend) and I have pretty wide personal space boundaries around men. I do have a sibling relationship with a man at work I trained with – we have known each other as residents and now partners for over ten years. We can share silly sex stories we read – you know, not personal but Anthony Weiner type stuff that I might not talk about with most men – there is just an incredible comfort level. I am friends with his wife. I am finally starting, with my other male partners, to forge sibling relationships after knowing them for over three years. It takes a lot of time for me.

So I am posting this because I hope that some readers out there that may be in a situation they are uncomfortable with can know that they are not alone. It is ok to speak up. Or walk away. We do not have to tolerate this behavior, in the workplace. My friend and I have discussed our current inappropriate interactions with many male and female colleagues, with details, and have found lots of support. To quote Hillary, it takes a village. We can drive this behavior out of it, together.

I have sought and received the permission of both of my friends mentioned in this article to write this post. They have read it and are comfortable with what I have said. The older incident – ten years past now – contains more details, as it is in the past. The current situation is still too fresh to flesh out online.

Gizabeth Shyder is a pathologist who blogs at Mothers in Medicine.

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  • Donna Ray Guerrero

    “I wondered aloud to a male colleague – one that we let into the loop for support – about the women, I know they are out there, that encourage this behavior.”
    This comment right here…I want to draw your attention to that you said.. Are you saying that women are the reason for his behavior.? Until the attitude changes to automatically blame the women you will continue to have this issue. This man chooses to behave this way… Men are responsible for there behavior no matter what anybody else does or says to them. A women didnt make him this way. History has shown that when a man misbehaves  his behavior is ignored and then the blame is put on the woman like the man has no control over his behavior.
    Somthing to ponder next time and look at how your own lens could be tainted with societys prejudices 
    Donna Guerrero

    • Gizabeth Shyder

      Donna Ray – Thanks for your comment.  I certainly did not mean to suggest that women invite this behavior – I was just trying to hash out the rationale of men who continue the behavior unheeded in my own mind.  I tried to emphasize in my post that harassment can go both ways between genders.

      Everyone else – thanks for your insight.  I got a lot of comments on Mothers In Medicine, and am pleased that this post I wrote over the summer is getting a wider audience.  I would like to emphasize again, especially to Kevin, that the incidents I am referring to are pretty “over the top” inappropriate.  I have seen one resident and two attendings in my career get relieved of their jobs because of their continued unreciprocated inappropriate behavior.  One involved physical assault, but the others were all verbal – and they were so disturbing that the perpetrators obviously probably had mental health imbalances.

  • Donna Ray Guerrero

    My comment was for whomever wrote the article…if I misread what you were intending to relay then please pass that on so I could know what you meant

  • Kevin Nasky

    The more subtle forms of this are a challenge (everyone agrees that groping is inappropriate…that’s just straight-up assault).  Basically what you’re talking about is un-reciprocated flirting. Most couples meet in the workplace, so this is nothing new. The same behavior can be judged differently depending on who it’s coming from, know what I mean? Also, for the person initiating the flirting, it’s impossible to know how it’s going to be perceived. Most socially adept people know to proceed with caution, and then quickly retract if the intended recipient seems to recoil rather than reciprocate. Some people are socially retarded though, and don’t know when they’re “striking out,” so they continue and it is interpreted as inappropriate.  I think overly-stringent, blanket rules can make the workplace insufferably boring. How many unwelcome advances are deemed okay? Some people play hard to get, right? Plus…back to what I said before…how is someone to know if their advance is unwelcome…until they try!  You have to have an “at bat” to strike out, right?

    Regarding the sexually inappropriate stuff in the OR. This is tough, because the “appropriateness” is really in the eye of the beholder. I’ve seen some OR teams where EVERYONE made these type of jokes, and it made the environment more fun/enjoyable. One prude can disrupt that mix, and people will rightfully demand that that prude has a right to demand a workspace he/she finds non-offensive. I guess, then, that we all have to tone down our humor to the least common denominator?  I once had a classmate who was so hyper-religious that she was offended when I said “damn.” Being that we college lab partners (quantitative analytical chem, no less — can’t think of a lab the would elicit more cursing), her insistence on rated-G-only language made the experience all the more worse.

    Back to the first issue: unwanted flirting in the workplace. Anyone remember Chris Rock’s SNL Monologue:

    “…if a man is your boss and says, “Hey, sleep with me, or you’re fired.” That’s sexual harrassment. And that’s the only
    thing that’s seual harrassment! Everything else falls under “Just
    trying to get laid.” You can’t put a man in jail for that! I don’t
    care how hard he tries, that’s all he was trying to do! Anita Hill
    started this whole thing. It’s all about looks, you know? Because if Clarence Thomas looked like Denzel Washington, this would have never happened! She’d be all, “Oh, stop it, Clarence, you nasty! Your fine self!” So, what’s sexual harrassment, when an ugly man wants some? “Oh, he ugly! Call the police! Call the authority!”

  • Anonymous

    It’s a difficult area, sometimes you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t…
    When I was 27 (I’m now 53) a very senior policeman touched me aggressively and inappropriately at a work social function and he actually set me up for the assault. I was shocked to the core…
    The assault was witnessed by around 8 people who all sympathized or apologized to me, including my boss, but it was clear no one thought I should take it further. This man was senior and my work at the time required regular contact with him. This man was fine most of the time, just a bit sleazy now and then, but he’d drink heavily at social events and then it would happen…
    I found out he’d assaulted others and on the rare occasions he was confronted by an angry husband or superior, he’d claim to have no memory of the event. He used his drinking as an excuse…”What did I do?”….and got away with it. In those days it was thought best to ignore the problem or make light of it.

    Now there are sexual harassment officers you can approach, who would handle the matter as discreetly as possible and advise you…back then there was no one and some women turned it on me, “Why didn’t you punch him or scream at him?”  I felt very isolated…
    I felt “unsafe” working with him from that point on, moved to another department, hated the work and ended up leaving…so the assualt affected my life. I do have a successful career, but all these years later it still bothers me…because he got away with it.


    sexual harrassment is inexcusable and with a need for zero tolerance. this has to be a two way street, men and women acting appropriately. the verbal part is esier to judge and control. the operating room, however, presents a unique environment that is more subtle. the physical space for surgeons, or nurses and anesthesia staff is limited, many people have to see and get close to do their jobs. this can precipitate physical contact that can be misconstrued. oral communication can avoid unnecessary problems, people have to voice the fact that they have to crowd in, lead, follow or get out of the way. 

  • Yale Lewis

    Sexual harrasment is not about ‘sex’ but is about one group trying to assert power over another. It is inappropiate and toxic and should never be tolerated in any setting.

  • Terri

    I am now in my late fifties. I am not a physician, but rather a Practice Administrator for over 60 physicians, mostly male. Over the years I, too, have wrangled with whether to report or not. Instead of reporting I decided to take the direct approach. 30 years ago, I worked for a company where the owner would occassionaly show up, pat all the women on the rear-end and say “how’s it going, tiger”.  Not onlly was this inappropriate, since he was in his 60′s, also creepy. When his hand reached out to “pat” me on the rear, I took a deep breath, looked him in the eye, grabbed his hand and said ” if you don’t pat me on the rear, I won’t kick you in the b…s! Everyone held their breath and he stopped, slowely smiled and said “deal”. I never had anymore problems with him or any other male worker at that company! I agree it is a problem and I do believe that overt sexual harrassment should be reported. But maybe the best approach to stopping all of this is the direct approach. In my opinion, males do this to prove that we are weak, insubordiante, inferior, to intimidate and by not reacting or showing fear, we affirm their belief.
    I know this may sound too simplistic and I do know and acknowledge that their are gross instances of sexual harrassment that must be handled by reporting and in some cases, taking legal action. But for the “randy” male colleague, can’t we just be strong enough to throw it right back at them?

    • Anonymous

      “But for the “randy” male colleague, can’t we just be strong enough to throw it right back at them?”

      Some women don’t feel able to do that, especially the shy or very young and it can be tricky with an older authority figure. As an older woman I try to look out for younger or vulnerable women (and men) remembering how I felt all those years ago. There was a guy in the office a few years ago telling off-colour jokes and talking to young women about his wife’s gyn exams in great detail.
      I felt he was “getting off” with these stories and “jokes” and it definitely made some of the women feel uncomfortable and embarrassed. Some women told him to get nicked, others struggled wondering if they were over-reacting, being prudish – should they say anything?
      I think that can be a fine line and many women struggle with it…when to say something, make a complaint. Does he mean it THAT way?
      I told him straight we’d all had enough of his jokes that were not funny and that talking about his wife’s personal business was disrespectful to her and inappropriate – he got the message.
      I think we need to jump on this sort of conduct when we see it happening around us  and help those who may feel unsure what to do, feel unable to act or stand up for themselves.

  • Anonymous

    This post is obsession, and  Ted Kaczynski, and Mohamed Atta are examples of obsessive personalities. Absolutely nothing in the post is worthy of discussion let alone reporting.

    There court was case a few years ago where a Wall Street employee got a substantial payment because the guys hit on her too much in her opinion. That was the only harm she alleged. There was no consideration of the heartache of unattractive women..

    • Brian Curry


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