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The sexual harassment of female student doctors

Women have been excelling in the field of medicine for a long time now -- making tremendous inroads on all levels of the profession. Yet, female medical students still experience sexual harassment at an astonishing -- and distressing -- rate.

The sexual harassment of women in the medical profession is so prevalent that one article on the problem called it "a chronic debilitating disease." That seems to be an accurate assessment, given that half of all female student doctors say that they've been sexually harassed.

Unfortunately, researchers say that the treatment that's been pursued for that "disease" in the past has been all wrong, focusing on the symptoms and not the overall illness. Up to this point, actions designed to address or stop sexual harassment focused only on individual perpetrators, not the institutional problems that allow those kinds of people to thrive.

In order to change the situation and make medicine a safe profession for women in the future, researchers say it will be necessary to take a new look at the way that women are treated as a whole -- not just respond to the complaints that end up formally charged or cases that evolve into actual legal issues. Instead, medical institutions and schools that are turning out the next generation of doctors need to start thinking about changes that will serve as a preventative treatment for sexual harassment, including:

  • Routinely engaging in discussions about the meaning of sexual harassment
  • Focusing on the creation of a culture that promotes respect and diversity
  • Reducing or eliminating power structures that frequently put male supervisors in charge of women's careers
  • Offering alternative methods for victims to report abuse
  • Providing victims with protection against retaliatory measures

Perhaps most importantly, researchers say, medical schools need to look at their internal structures and realize that too few women are being included among the faculty. Even though women make up slightly more than half the human population, only 38 percent of the faculty in the nation's medical schools are women -- and only 15 percent are the chairs of any department. The lack of inclusion may breed a sort of tolerance for harassment that might not otherwise be able to take hold.

Anyone who experiences sexual harassment in their profession should consider all their legal options for redress, especially if they have tried -- and failed -- to get the behavior to change.

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