One Third of Physician Faculty Members Report Sexual Harassment

Marcia Frellick

May 17, 2016

In a survey of high-achieving medical academics, 30% of women and 4% of men report personally experiencing sexual harassment.

Among women who reported harassment, 59% said it hurt their confidence in themselves as professionals, and 47% reported that the experiences hampered career advancement.

"This is a sobering reminder that our society has a long way to go before we achieve gender equity," study author Reshma Jagsi, MD, DPhil, associate professor and deputy chair of radiation oncology at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor, said in a university news release. Findings were presented in a research letter published in the May 17 issue of JAMA.

Dr Jagsi and colleagues surveyed 1719 recent recipients of career development awards from the National Institutes of Health in 2006 to 2009 on their career and personal experiences, including questions on gender bias and sexual harassment. The response rate was 62% (1066 people with an average age of 43 years) and did not differ much by sex (61% men vs 64% women).

The results show that women were more likely than men to report perceptions of gender bias in their careers (70% [95% confidence interval (CI), 65% - 74%] vs 22% [95% CI, 19% - 25%]), as well as to report experience of gender bias (66% [95%CI, 62% - 70%] vs 10% [95%CI, 8% - 13%]).

Among the personal harassment experiences women reported were sexist remarks or behavior (92.0%), unwanted sexual advances (41.3%), subtle bribery to engage in sexual behavior (6.0%), threats to engage in sexual behavior (1.3%), and coercive advances (9.3%).

Dr Jagsi and colleagues compared the numbers with those from a 1995 survey, in which 52% of US academic medical faculty women reported harassment at work compared with 5% of men. Those women had started their careers when they constituted a minority of the medical school class. Now that the numbers gap is closing, the gender bias gap is perhaps even more striking.

"Although a lower proportion reported these experiences [sexual harassment] than in a 1995 sample, the difference appears large given that the women [in this new survey] began their careers after the proportion of female medical students exceeded 40%," the authors write.

They conclude: "Recognizing sexual harassment is important because perceptions that such experiences are rare may, ironically, increase stigmatization and discourage reporting. Efforts to mitigate the effect of unconscious bias in the workplace and eliminate more overtly inappropriate behaviors are needed."

Limitations include that 38% of surveyed did not respond. That could inflate estimates of prevalence if those who had experienced harassment were more motivated to respond. To help reduce the risk of that, researchers put the questions at the end of a 12-page survey that focused on general career experiences.

This work was funded by the National Institutes of Health and by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Clinical Scholars Program and the US Department of Veterans Affairs. The authors have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

JAMA. 2016;315:2120-2121. Abstract

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