Women in Medicine Share Stories of Sexual Assault

December 8, 2017

Although women make up half of medical students and greater than a third of attending physicians, medicine has its fair share of problems.

Time magazine has named the "Silence Breakers" as the 2017 Person of the Year. In the wake of the #MeToo campaign with its subsequent opening of the floodgates of sexual assault reports, industries must grapple with past incidents and clearly identify preventive strategies.

After the movement started to gain steam, Twitter soon lit up with #MeTooMedicine and accounts of women physicians who faced sexual assault in their training and workplaces. The hierarchy of the medical profession is particularly vulnerable to the power differentials that are the heart of sexual assault. Reports of abuse labeled as "heresy" by administrators and individuals fearful of repercussion silently enduring harassment now coming to the surface in 140 characters. Retweets of belief conveyed anonymous support but the future remains somewhat unclear.

Although women make up half of medical students and greater than a third of attending physicians, health care and medical education remains particularly challenging for women. Speaking out against a respected senior physician could be career ending and a genuine threat to the years of effort and toil.

As a female physician with responsibilities for training medical students and residents, the horrible experiences these women laid bare on social media are wrenching to hear. As we lay the groundwork for prevention, one focus seems to be at the heart of why the social media #MeToo campaign opened up the subject of sexual assault as broadly and raw as it did lay in the word "too.

Finding a community where the sheer numbers created a sense of safety for many women encouraged voices that had never been able to put to words their experiences. This community becomes vital for victims. By finding others who have been where we have been, felt the fear we have felt, we can begin to reach beyond the unearned shame. Simply to be believed can help to heal and knowing we are not alone can make us stronger.

Systems need to change. This cannot turn into the ever familiar "what women should do," because this is not a women's problem, it's a societal problem. When we protect the predator instead of the prey, we all suffer. The career of victims are cut short and with it, a loss of brain power, patient care, and future growth.

Institutions looking to create safer work environments must be willing to believe victims and remove threats. Some of the most alarming aspects lies in the repetitive behavior tolerated by too many programs.  Familiar stories resonate of the senior surgeon whom women are warned to avoid or the director known to make inappropriate comments in meetings.

All too often we fail to call out the offensive or threatening behavior and it continues harming our colleagues, our trainees, and students. It becomes all of our duty to identify such callous disregard and intentional abuse of power when we encounter it. When we create a work environment where consistent respect is expected and power is not permitted to be lorded over the vulnerable, only then will we have begun to chip away from the long-held rituals and traditions that have excused such harmful behavior.

Only be demanding accountability can we begin to change the system.