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Sexual Harassment in the Medical Field

Posted by Kira Fonteneau | Jan 03, 2019 | 0 Comments

Gender inequality has existed in the medical field for centuries. It took until the mid-1850s before the first woman was admitted to a medical school in the U.S., and Harvard Medical School didn't admit a female student until 1936. Today, there are roughly the same number of men and women attending medical school. But despite reaching parity at the academic level, women still only make up approximately one-third of the nation's physicians.

The gender gap is even wider in positions of authority within the health care field. While the field has far more women than men overall, women only hold about 15% of the management positions, and only about one out of five hospital CEOs are women. Because of these disparities, women are frequently subjected to various forms of discrimination and harassment in the medical workplace. And the male-dominated hierarchical structure (and other factors unique to the health care industry) has created an environment where sexual harassment is prevalent.

Widespread Sexual Harassment in the Medical Field

As more women have entered the healthcare field, the rate of sexual harassment has also increased. Women in the industry experience sexual harassment from the time they begin training for their career. For example, as many as half of female medical students have reported being sexually harassed. In addition, 30% of female members of medical faculty say they have been sexually harassed in the past two years.

It gets no better once women enter their residency and start working in hospitals, laboratories, and other medical facilities. 30% to 70% of female physicians report they have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. This percentage is higher than in most other fields, and there is little evidence that the health care industry is doing anything to stop it. According to an article by the Harvard Business Review, “the efforts of many healthcare organizations and medical centers tend to go little further than avoiding litigation.”

There are several reasons sexual harassment occurs so frequently in the medical field:

  • Management Disparities: the positions of power in the health care field are overwhelmingly dominated by men, with women accounting for the vast majority of subordinates. Transgressions are frequently tolerated in this environment, because those in power tend to “look out for each other.”
  • Isolated Work Environments: Women who work as residents and in hospitals, clinics, and laboratories often work alone with their supervisors. This creates a climate where supervisors can harass subordinates without other witnesses. More than half of all reported incidents of sexual harassment in the medical field occur in isolated work environments.
  • Fear of Retaliation: One of the major reasons sexual harassment continues to occur at alarming rates within the health care field is that many women do not report it fearing negative consequences. Not only do victims of sexual harassment fear losing their job, they are also afraid that they will be labeled “moody” or “difficult to work with” or many other derogatory labels that could foster a hostile work environment and cost them career advancement opportunities. And for residents, a sexual harassment claim could mean not getting a letter of recommendation from their supervisor, which is often their only route toward securing future employment.

Sexual harassment is not only a problem between supervisors and subordinates in the medical field, females are also frequently harassed by patients whom they often work with in an isolated environment. Unfortunately, most women in the medical field do not report sexual harassment by patients because of fear they may be publicly ridiculed or even lose their jobs.

Combating Sexual Harassment in the Medical Workplace

In the wake of the #metoo movement, a growing number of female physicians and other health care workers are reporting incidents of supervisor and patient harassment. However, there is still a long way to go before females will be adequately protected from sexual harassment and sexual advances in the medical workplace.

There are steps female doctors and other health care workers can take to help protect themselves from being subjected to this behavior:

  • Avoid being alone with a male supervisor or male patient;
  • End a conversation, examination, or doctor-patient relationship if harassment or abuse occurs or if you feel unsafe;
  • Report any questionable behavior by a supervisor or patient. In most medical workplaces, there are channels set up for this specific purpose;
  • Speak with an experienced workplace discrimination lawyer about your legal rights and options.

Contact Alabama Employment Attorney Kira Fonteneau

If you have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, you need strong legal counsel in your corner advocating aggressively for your rights and interests. For 13 years, attorney Kira Fonteneau has stood up for working people in Alabama. Kira knows this area of the law, and she works closely with her clients to investigate their case and explore every potential legal avenue toward obtaining relief.

For a consultation with attorney Fonteneau, call our office today at (404) 383-5720. You may also send us a message through our online contact form.  

About the Author

Kira Fonteneau

Partner and Managing Attorney of the Alabama Trial Practice Group at Barrett & Farahany Kira Fonteneau is a partner and the managing attorney of the Alabama trial group of Barrett & Farahany. Kira chose to specialize in employment law because she wanted to help employees take back power. ...

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