The silent epidemic of sexual harassment in medical schools


It is hard for any physician to advance as a medical researcher. Competition for research funding is fierce; the rigors of publishing in prestigious medical journals are gargantuan. And women pursuing such careers face even bigger challenges, with many having to take on disproportionate burdens at home compared to their male colleagues (caring for kids, attending to chores), while receiving less effective mentorship than equally accomplished men.

Add to that the horrible, awful burden of being sexually harassed. I was part of a research team, led by Reshma Jagsi of the University of Michigan, that reported on the frequency of sexual harassment experienced by early-career medical researchers. I will tell you about our findings shortly. But first, I want to describe an email Dr. Jagsi received shortly after we published our findings. It was from a woman (who I will keep anonymous) who experienced sexual discrimination and harassment during her residency training (the period of time immediately following medical school). She was in a relatively small specialty, one where everyone knows everyone else. That made her feel like if she spoke up in any way about her treatment, word would get around the country about her difficult personality, and it could interfere with her career.

During residency training, her department chair held weekly poker games for residents and faculty, but only invited men. It was a guy’s night kind of thing, a seemingly harmless gathering except for its close connection to the workplace. If the department chair had invited non-employees over for poker — dudes he knew outside of the medical school setting — there would be nothing wrong with him holding a male-only poker game. But by inviting colleagues and employees, while excluding the women in his department, he was erecting a barrier to their careers. Poker games and golf foursomes matter.

Quick side note. When Jagsi showed a draft of this essay to the anonymous woman I’m writing about, the woman worried that mentioning the poker game might give away her identity. In case you think you know who this woman is because you were her department chair, excluding her from a poker game — my guess is there are dozens of people reading this article who feel the same way. Men-only, workplace-related poker games are so common as to be a bad cliché.

Sexual harassment, of course, is even more destructive than poker-related sexual discrimination. In this woman’s case, such harassment left her mired in self-doubt. “I’ve wondered if something was pathologically wrong with me that I invited that kind of behavior,” she told Dr. Jagsi. “Was it because I was soft-spoken?” She worried that she was “defective.”

She has not spoken publicly about her experiences out of concern for her career. She finished her training and found a good job with respectful colleagues. But it was only upon seeing our study that she gained “closure.”

She gained closure because our study showed that she was not alone. We surveyed over 1,000 people who had received scientific training awards from the NIH between 2006 and 2009. (They were K-award recipients, for those of you familiar with NIH funding.) We discovered huge differences among men and women in their experience of bias and harassment: 70 percent of women perceived gender-specific bias in the medical schools where they worked versus 22 percent of men; 30 percent of women reported experiencing sexual harassment versus 4 percent of men:


Here is a simpler version of those results:






p value

Perceived gender-specific bias in academic workplace 70 22 < .001
Personally experienced gender bias 66 10 < .001
Experienced career advantages because of gender 26 21 .08
Experienced sexual harrassment 30 4 < .001

No man or woman should come to work and experience sexual harassment. But harassment typically happens to people who don’t have institutional power, with harassers either holding the power (like Roger Ailes) or recognizing that the powers-that-be don’t want to acknowledge the existence of such harassment (a.k.a. all those other men at Fox News who have harassed women there). As Jagsi notes, “Our findings are a sobering reminder of just how far we, as a society, have to go. Especially in an age where half of all medical students are women, we cannot tolerate behaviors that can discourage the best and brightest in our field — many of whom are women — from achieving their true potential.”

Sexual harassment can cause strong, brilliant people, like the woman who wrote to Dr. Jagsi, to question their own self-worth, and to wonder whether they are to blame. Organizational leaders, including medical school chiefs, chairs, and deans, need to make it easier for their employees to report instances of sexual harassment without fearing for their careers.

Peter Ubel is a physician and behavioral scientist who blogs at his self-titled site, Peter Ubel and can be reached on Twitter @PeterUbel. He is the author of Critical Decisions: How You and Your Doctor Can Make the Right Medical Choices Together. This article originally appeared in Forbes.

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