Unique, Complex and Commonplace? Gender-based Harassment in Academic Medicine

A blog entry announcing the SHARE Center’s efforts to meet the unique needs of VUMC’s Faculty and Physicians

“When I came back from a leave of absence in residency to move my dad into a memory-care center, I was constantly being told how far behind I was and that there would be no time for ‘competing responsibilities’ if I was to succeed.”

“The female PGY2’s all gathered at the conference and shared that they already felt so much pressure to prioritize their careers. It was a series of comments, the structure of the programs and the lack of female leadership that created the vibe…not that we were all being hit on – although that seemed to happen a lot, too.”

“The bedside nurses always referred to me by my first name. I’ve noticed the male physicians on the unit consistently get referred to as ‘Dr.’”

For many of us, when we hear the words sexual harassment, we flash back to the early 90’s videotapes mandated for everyone employed in any occupational setting throughout the country. My first memory was of the VHS tapes in the break room of the Office Depot where I worked in college. Some of us may remember the day Anita Hill gave public testimony about experiences of physical and verbal sexual harassment by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Others of us cannot unsee or unhear the denials and crude disclosures of public personalities within the entertainment, political and professional sports worlds when confronted with reports of their sexually abusive behavior. Still, for others, the call of public acknowledgement that was named during the #MeToo movement carried the hope of a new era of accountability.

In the height of the #MeToo movement in 2018, The National Academies Press released "Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine" [1].

This important report uses the following definition of sexual harassment to provide a structure for the lived experience of so many within the field of academic medicine.

Sexual harassment (a form of discrimination) is composed of three categories of behavior:

(1) gender harassment (verbal and nonverbal behaviors that convey hostility, objectification, exclusion, or second-class status about members of one gender),

(2) unwanted sexual attention (verbal or physical unwelcome sexual advances, which can include assault), and

(3) sexual coercion (when favorable professional or educational treatment is conditioned on sexual activity).

Harassing behavior can be either direct (targeted at an inpidual) or ambient (a general level of sexual harassment in an environment).

Here at VUMC, we have several different definitions of sexual harassment that can influence and determine the response of the institution to reported events. The SHARE Center is committed to the broadest view of what sexual harassment encompasses – especially given the unique experience of our women faculty and trainees who challenge longstanding gender roles by working (and succeeding) within this historically male-dominated field.

Recognizing gender-based harassment - the type of discrimination that creates an environment of hostility and objectification - and responding through confidential workplace consultations and with immediate availability of trauma-informed counseling –– are some of the important ways we at the SHARE Center provide inpidualized support for our faculty, physicians and housestaff. Although VUMC employees have the opportunity to consider whether a formal report needs to be made to VUPD or Employee Relations or via the Veritas system – the SHARE Center is focused on providing a safe and confidential space to talk about the impact of all forms of sexual harassment and workplace violence without any obligation or pressure to make a report.

Watch for further programs and announcements about the SHARE Center’s targeted outreach to VUMC faculty and trainees or contact Heather Kamper, LCSW – the SHARE Center Coordinator at heather.a.kamper@vumc.org to discuss opportunities for awareness and educational presentations. Follow the SHARE Center on social media through @WellVanderbilt on Instagram. Visit the SHARE Center website: https://www.vumc.org/health-wellness/share-center.

Have you experienced sexual or gender harassment in your work? Contact us at share.center@vumc.org.

[1] National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/24994.