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Fear of covert retaliation silences harassment claims in medicine

In 2018, the fight against sexual harassment expanded beyond Hollywood with the founding of Times’s Up. This year, Time’s Up Healthcare branched out to focus on more gender balance in healthcare leadership (women in medicine only hold 10 percent of chief executive jobs).

The new organization will also address workplace harassment and abuse. For example, 58 percent of female surgeons reported experiencing sexual harassment within the previous year. But women in medicine often do not report incidents for fear it could negatively impact their careers.

From medical school into the profession

Defined as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature … [that] explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.”

A recent article in the Journal of the Association of American Medical Colleges finds that sexual harassment may start in medical school. The aggressor is usually more senior rather than a peer. The most common type of harassment is verbal.

Only 21 percent of those who experienced offensive behaviors or harassment filed a report. While this statistic comes from a questionnaire of students, it does not seem to get any easier to report incidents after accepting a career position in medicine.

Covert retaliation

The law prohibits retaliation by an employer or a perpetrator after you file a complaint. Training and reporting mechanisms may mean less overt retaliation occurs, such as poor evaluations.

Covert retaliation, however, is subtle and it can happen without your knowledge. This form of retaliation could occur a decade later while applying for a promotion or grant funding. A negative comment or troublemaker label could doom career advancement especially in competitive fields of medical research, academia and leadership.

How to drive change

Some of the proposed solutions to reduce incidents of sexual harassment in the healthcare field include mandatory training, anonymous reporting mechanisms and consistent employer responses. Public discussion can also shine a light onto bad behavior and encourage victims to come forward.

Before reporting unwelcome harassment, speak with an employment law attorney to understand your legal rights and to weigh the possible career risks. When it becomes increasingly difficult to go to work, it is crucial to do something and make a change.

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