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Yale Pediatrician: Like 1 In 3 Medical Trainees, I Was Sexually Harassed

We in medicine, writes Marjorie Rosenthal, should take the lead in addressing sexual harassment. (valelopardo/Pixabay)closemore
We in medicine, writes Marjorie Rosenthal, should take the lead in addressing sexual harassment. (valelopardo/Pixabay)

The news that some male Marine Corps members used Facebook to upload photographs and suggest sexual violence against female Marine Corps members is disturbing and terrifying. But it is not surprising.

In every workplace and on every team where there is a culture of hierarchy and no strong message against sexual harassment, it rears its ugly head. I am a pediatrician. I was a pediatric intern working in the neonatal intensive care unit with my senior resident one night, trying to learn as much as I could about taking care of very sick infants.

After checking on all the newborns and laboring women, my senior resident and I retired to the call room. It was a bare room — a bunk bed, a table, a closed door. Because we both knew that if we were called to an emergency delivery, we would want him there first, he was in the bottom bunk and I was in the top bunk. We lay in the beds, discussing the babies we worried about and what I would do if called to see one of them.

And then he asked me out. He asked if I would like to go out for dinner one night. While we were alone, in bunk beds, in a closed room, and while he was my immediate supervisor, he asked me out.

My first thought was, if I say no, would he retaliate and send me to the delivery room alone? Would I have to take care of a sick newborn by myself? Would the nurse hand me a slippery brand new baby, blue from lack of oxygen, a baby I wouldn't know how to care for? And would the newborn die? All because I didn’t say yes to dinner? I said no, but lay awake for the rest of the night, terrified.

While we were alone, in bunk beds, in a closed room, and while he was my immediate supervisor, he asked me out.

I didn’t tell any administrators about this event. I told my girlfriends. It wasn’t sexual assault. I didn’t know if it was sexual harassment. What I did know was that it created an uncomfortable workplace and reduced my ability to care for patients. That night, and every time I worked with that senior resident, when I was supposed to focus on signs and symptoms and plans for my patients, I worried that he would ask me out again, that he would refuse to help to me and how that might hurt my patients.

A few months later, a male friend in my residency told me that men in the pediatrics department were sharing misogynistic jokes on a group email. My friend encouraged me to report the jokes to the administration. I did, and was told it stopped. But while in clinic one day, one of the doctors on the group email — one of my male supervisors — told me that my report was misguided and that the emails were “all in good fun.”

I don’t know why my friend asked me to report the jokes instead of doing it himself. Maybe he thought the complaint would be more powerful coming from a woman. Or maybe he felt the weight of the “all-in-good-fun” culture and did not want to fully betray a group to which he belonged.

Meanwhile, my clinic supervisor confirmed why not reporting the bunk bed situation was the right thing to do. “All in good fun” described a culture unready to address sexual harassment.

We in medicine need to be role models in this healing process. We need to acknowledge that one-third of medical trainees report sexual harassment.

One barrier is that our culture treats sexual harassment as if its victims are “other” people -- blaming the victims as a defense mechanism. We say, “Her clothes were sexually suggestive — so if I don’t wear those clothes, I will be safe.” Or, “She shouldn’t have been out late at a place like that — so if I avoid those situations, I will be safe.” I was at work overnight, 100 feet from sick newborns in tiny isolettes. And those female marines? They were training to save our lives. Even before this story broke, revelations of sexual harassment over the past year should make it very clear that sexual harassment happens throughout society.

We in medicine need to be role models in this healing process. We need to acknowledge that one-third of medical trainees report sexual harassment. We must recognize that this behavior causes some trainees to avoid certain specialties, such as surgery or internal medicine — and creates stress that may impede caring for patients. We need to acknowledge that we must change the culture that allows sexual harassment. Specifically, we should have facilitated discussions with those at the top of the hierarchy — which largely means men — to talk about current behavior and the way we view both sexual harassment victims and perpetrators as a way to recognize problematic behavior. And we need to train everyone about appropriate behavior and what to do when faced with harassment.

It's Women’s History Month. Can’t we make sexual harassment and violence history?

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Marjorie S. Rosenthal Cognoscenti contributor
Marjorie S. Rosenthal is an associate professor of pediatrics at the Yale University School of Medicine.

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