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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