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“Patropoly” in Practice: Sexual Harassment in Medicine

Get ready to be grossed out–and maybe furious. The number of shocking sexual harassment stories that have emerged from the guest posts is simply shameful.  I have decided just to list the anecdotes in their original form.  Please be aware that none of the stories below happened in some backwater emergency room or rural GP’s office. Each occurred in one of America’s top ranked institutions and every bad guy here is a big shot. 

It horrifies me to think that a class of male as revered and respected as American doctors are would behave so badly.  It’s not what they do that shocks me–I figure there are males in every class who behave this way.  It’s the fact that their behavior is so completely tolerated–these doctors obviously feel no shame for humiliating their female co-workers because they do it in front of so many others!  They can get away with it, I guess because their power inside the hospital is so total that onlookers fear to intervene or complain.  Think about it:  if doctors are this brazen about sexualizing their medical colleagues, will they hesitate to victimize their patients (who are even more vulnerable) in a similar way?

I have chosen to illustrate with these 1950s pinups because, as I said in the first post, this stuff reminds me of the Mad-Men-Do-Medicine environment I grew up in.  I really thought we had moved somewhat past that–until I read these stories.

In my first week of working [at the hospital], another female coworker told me that, as a young woman, I should wear two pairs of scrub pants to avoid sexual comments from the male surgeons. I thought that was a gross exaggeration until I had the pleasure of overhearing a conversation between two male surgeons ranking the female research assistants by body part.

A friend of mine got a job in the oncology department of  [a major hospital in a major city in the US]. For her exciting new job, her mother had taken her to Kohl’s and bought her some nice professional separates. She was very proud in her new pencil skirt and blouse and wore them on her first day. She met with one of the oncologists at the center and he complimented her on her skirt. He then, without asking, started touching the skirt. Stroking “the skirt” around her hips and thighs. It went on and on. She froze and desperately hoped for another coworker to please return to the room. He kept acting like he was mesmerized by the fabric because he had thought about going into fashion before he went into medicine–yeah right! Kohl’s doesn’t exactly trade in rare and exceptional fabric. I’m pretty sure he was just being a creep. 

In the OR, I even heard a male resident call a nurse “Yummy,” rather than her name, for the entirety of the surgery–as in, “I need some suction over here, Yummy.”

One of my fellow female RA’s was sick at work one day. It was a particularly long day- -she had to collect tissue samples from six different surgical cases that day which translates to at least a 12 hour day. She was handling it like a champ and not complaining but at the end of the day she started to vomit and needed to leave work and asked for someone to cover her last surgical case. A male resident’s immediate and disgusted response in room full of colleagues was, “Are you pregnant?!” She was definitely not, it was flu season, and she had a stomach virus. “Uhm, no. I’m just sick to my stomach.” She was so uncomfortable with the exchange and was so embarrassed that she just stayed and finished the night, retreating regularly to the bathroom.

Our lab hired a crop of young aspiring doctors to work as research assistants each year. One of the doctors was notorious for hiring only pretty young girls, it was a common joke in the department that everyone felt strangely at ease with. When it came time to interview and hire the next year’s groups his candidates paraded in. One young very attractive thin blonde …you get the idea… undergraduate came into the lab, and introduced herself. The surgeon greeted her and his first question was “How old are you?” “Twenty-one” she replied. And in front of 9 coworkers in the lab, he gives her body an uncomfortably slow and obvious inspection followed by an audible moan-grunt, “Mmm, very nice.”  He proceeded to hire her with essentially no further questions. He was shameless in his sexualization of her. And why should he feel any shame when his coworkers simply find his lecherousness amusing and shrug it off. 

I think some of the worse sexual harassment I encountered was not directed at the woman herself but that I was forced to overhear. Male colleagues would say things like, I’m paraphrasing, “There are no married female surgeons in the department because female surgeons fall into two categories: the stone cold ball busting bitch types, and ones with serious and desperate emotional baggage.” The latter they would love to discuss–how these women were so damaged!  They imagined them to be obscenely sexually available. I cannot put in writing the horrifying and disgusting way they would describe, often violent, sexual acts they would like to do to these women. But the fact that they were described in my presence says a lot about how freely these men felt they could speak. It also served to keep me in my place, keep me feeling uncomfortable, and over-sexualized.

For other posts in this series:  Initial post is here; post on medical school admissions is here, post on hiring and evaluation is here


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