Stories from the Field: Students’ Descriptions of Gender Discrimination and Sexual Harassment During Medical School

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Abstract

Purpose

Previous studies have documented the prevalence of gender discrimination and sexual harassment during medical training, but very few have examined the behaviors that students perceive as discriminatory or harassing. The authors addressed this lack of information by examining graduating medical students’ written descriptions of personal experiences with such behaviors during medical school.

Method

The authors reviewed the responses of graduating seniors at 12 U.S. medical schools to a questionnaire, administered in 2001–02, that asked them to provide written descriptions of their personal experiences with gender discrimination and sexual harassment. Seven response categories were created on the basis of recurring themes: educational inequalities; stereotypical comments; sexual overtures; offensive, embarrassing, or sexually explicit comments; inappropriate touching; sexist remarks; and not classifiable. The three authors examined the students’ written accounts and placed each into one or more of the categories.

Results

Of the students’ responses, 290 (36.6%) contained 313 written descriptions of personal experiences that the students perceived as either discriminatory or harassing. The most frequently reported experiences involved educational inequalities; experiences in this category were reported more frequently by men than by women. All other categories of experiences were reported more frequently by women.

Conclusions

The results support earlier findings of the prevalence of gender discrimination and sexual harassment during undergraduate medical education. Perhaps formal antiharassment policies should provide examples of unacceptable behavior that are based on categories such as those revealed by this analysis. Perhaps, too, medical students’ comments could be used to develop educational interventions for physicians in supervisory positions.

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