Sexual Harassment in Medical Schools: The Challenge of Covert Retaliation as a Barrier to Reporting


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Abstract

Although Title IX, the federal law prohibiting sexual harassment in educational institutions, was enacted in 1972, sexual harassment continues to be distressingly common in medical training. In addition, many women who experience sexual harassment do not report their experiences to authorities within the medical school.In this article, the authors review the literature on the prevalence of sexual harassment in medical schools since Title IX was enacted and on the cultural and legal changes that have occurred during that period that have affected behaviors. These changes include decreased tolerance for harassing behavior; increased legal responsibility assigned to institutions; and a significant increase in the number of female medical students, residents, and faculty. The authors then discuss persisting barriers to reporting sexual harassment, including fears of reprisals and retaliation, especially covert retaliation. They define covert retaliation as vindictive comments made by a person accused of sexual harassment about his or her accuser in a confidential setting, such as a grant review, award selection, or search committee.The authors conclude by highlighting institutional and organizational approaches to decreasing sexual harassment and overt retaliation, and they propose other approaches to decreasing covert retaliation. These initiatives include encouraging senior faculty members to intervene and file bystander complaints when they witness inappropriate comments or behaviors as well as group reporting when multiple women are harassed by the same person.

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