The elephant in the room in every practice and medical society today is sexual harassment. Does it occur or are we immune? While the medical establishment has been somewhat reluctant to address this head-on, the Society of Gynecologic Oncology (SGO) held a dedicated scientific session on sexual harassment at its 50th Annual Meeting on Women’s Cancer in Honolulu, Hawaii on March 17.
I was honored to be a participant in this session, which was chaired by Michael Carney, MD, a professor of Gynecologic Oncology at the University of Hawaii. Meanwhile, Jennifer Rose, JD, the director of the Office of Institutional Equity; Jerris Hedges, MD, a professor and dean of the School of Medicine at the University of Hawaii; and Lane Drury, BA at the Levine Cancer Institute at Atrium Health provided legal education, leadership advice, and facilitated an interactive case series with robust audience participation.
Drury and I presented the results of a survey we conducted among more than 7,000 physician members of the AAGL, an international gynecologic surgical society dedicated to the research and advancement of minimally invasive gynecologic procedures, in which 67 percent of female respondents and 39 percent of male respondents reported having experienced workplace discrimination. In total, 28 percent of respondents (mostly but not exclusively women), had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. In 80 percent of cases, a power differential was noted between the harasser and the victim, with over half of instances occurring during training. Surprisingly, only 8 percent of the incidents were reported. Lastly, 16 women and two men had experienced workplace related sexual assault.1
These percentages are staggering but not unexpected. Participants in the session commented on their own experiences with discrimination and harassment — as both women and men in gynecology — expressing gratitude to have a forum to discuss their experiences. I was impressed with the candor and engagement of the audience. We shared our experiences of policy improvement and implementation and leader training within the AAGL, the SGO, and our institutions.
What constitutes appropriate behavior versus harassment? How should colleagues and leaders best respond to challenging situations? Until our workplaces are universally free of discrimination and harassment, these are important ethical discussions to hold, and as one senior gynecologic oncologist who was present noted, these discussions are long overdue.
“The stories I could tell you … You’ve got to help these young people along: pull them up, tell them it will be okay, and then be there for them,” she said.
Kudos to SGO for tackling this difficult subject and bringing the issue of sexual harassment into the light.
Jubilee Brown MD is a professor and associate director of Gynecologic Oncology at the Levine Cancer Institute at AtriumHealth. She is the vice president of the AAGL, chair of the AAGL Diversity and Inclusion Committee, and a member of the SGO Ethics Committee.
1Brown J et al. Journal of Minimally Invasive Gynecol 2019 (Epub ahead of print).
Illustration by April Brust