Why are women doctors still sexually harassed?

By Kristen Fuller, MD | Fact-checked by MDLinx staff
Published July 7, 2022

Key Takeaways

As a female in medicine, I have certainly experienced my own share of sexual harassment.

I was a 4th-year medical student on an elective OB-GYN rotation, helping retract and suture in the operating room during a total hysterectomy. Within this 2-hour surgery, I had my hand physically slapped, an instrument thrown at me, and was called "little girl" by the attending male OB-GYN surgeon.

An attending physician at the same hospital sexually assaulted a chief resident, but the incident was swept under the rug.

These instances were at a teaching hospital where medical students, residents, and fellows are supposed to learn and thrive in a safe environment.

So many of my medical school classmates have similar stories. And we’re not alone.

The many forms of harassment

In an essay in the New England Journal of Medicine, three female physician authors prompted an inauspicious proposition.

"Imagine a medical-school dean addressing the incoming class with this demoralizing prediction: 'Look at the woman to your left and then at the woman to your right. On average, one of them will be sexually harassed during the next 4 years, before she has even begun her career as a physician,'" the authors wrote.[]

Harassment of women in medicine comes from all directions. Its proliferation can be suffocating, and unfortunately, it’s an issue that frequently goes unaddressed or is trivialized.

The most common types of harassment in the medical community include sexual comments about body parts, unwanted groping, hugging, patting, or other physical contact, sexual remarks, and deliberately infringing on someone’s personal space. Of course, males can and do experience sexual harassment. But not on the same scale.

A look at the numbers

Female physicians share the power of the medical profession with their male counterparts. We also share the vulnerability of our gender with other females.

Female medical students and physicians not only report harassment by male physicians, but also by patients.

Below are some statistics on the sexual harassment of female physicians:

  • In a survey of 1,064 licensed female family physicians in Ontario, Canada, more than 75% reported sexual harassment by a patient at some time during their careers.[] These physicians were harassed most often in their own offices, and by their own patients.

  • A recent report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that female medical students were 220% more likely than students from non-science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines to have faced sexual harassment from faculty or staff.[]

  • In an analysis of 280 physician misconduct cases between 2008 and 2016, including inappropriate sexual acts, researchers found 95 physicians who had sexually assaulted at least one patient.[] All of these incidents were perpetrated by men, and more than 85% of the victims were women.

Harassment scenarios and impact

Underlying factors that make an organization prone to sexual harassment include a hierarchical structure, a male-dominated environment, and a climate that tolerates offenses, particularly when individuals with power commit them.[] Unfortunately, medical environments typically have all three of these elements.

The future career of a female medical student and resident often depends on a positive evaluation from her supervisor (resident or attending physician), so she is vulnerable to that supervisor's power. As a result, sexual harassment by a male patient or supervising physician often goes unmentioned or unreported.

Incidents of harassment can damage physicians professionally and personally. Sexual harassment in medicine can harm an individual by causing low self-esteem, burnout, anxiety, PTSD, depression, and by interfering with job performance and patient care.

Taking action

"There is a dire need to address the issue of sexual harassment within the medical profession and ensure that its victims are heard."

Kristen Fuller, MD

Healthcare systems can—and should—take action against sexual harassment. Some of these actions include:[]

  • Adopting clear and concise policies and user-friendly methods of reporting

  • Offering accessible counseling and support for victims

  • Consistent follow-through and harsh consequences for perpetrators

  • Hiring inclusive leadership, increasing female representation in leadership roles, and ensuring equality in salary and power

As female physicians, we must stand up for and support each other, document all cases of harassment, report them in writing, follow through with our reports, and seek counseling and support to ensure that our mental health and patient care do not suffer.

As the authors of a commentary published in Harvard Business Review wrote, “We must take down the traditional hierarchies in medicine that provide a fertile ground for harassment, survey ourselves, and ask the difficult (and sometimes painful) questions about how our culture fails our employees.”[]

"We must support and strengthen women physicians and build a climate where transgressions are unacceptable. The time to heal ourselves is now."

van Dis, et al.

Read Next: How to combat sexual harassment in medicine

Each week in our "Real Talk" series, mental health advocate Kristen Fuller, MD, shares straight talk about situations that affect the mental and emotional health of today's healthcare providers. Each column offers key insights to help you navigate these challenging experiences. We invite you to submit a topic you'd like to see covered.

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