Survey Finds Women Doctors Face Harassment, Bias

Women make up about half of the nation's medical students. Despite that progress, a recent survey found large numbers of female physicians face gender discrimination at work.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

—Martin Luther King, Jr.

My sister Alice might have become a physician. She never got the chance. Many years ago my physician-dad confided in me that before her tragic death in 1974, Alice “was seriously considering medical school.” The calling was there, dad felt.

In a show of cruel fate, Alice was on her way to the hospital during a severe Northeast storm when she crashed her car and died. Doubly cruel, Alice was the second sibling in the family to die in an auto wreck (a 1971 accident had claimed the life of our sister, Clare).

In receiving a thoroughly Catholic education (1st grade right through nursing school), Alice came to embody its teachings—hope, compassion, love, faith. Already an excellent ICU nurse when she was just 21 years old, my sister also lived the teachings of her physician-father, “always try to make the patient feel better.”

My father paid her the ultimate compliment when he told me that she decided all on her own to go into nursing and she did it all on her own without any help asked of or received from him. One of her colleagues in the ICU said that Alice was “very dedicated but also had a sense of what she was doing within a greater scope. She didn't want to say in nursing permanently.” So perhaps my father was right about her career arch in medicine. I would have loved to see it all.

All this nostalgia leads into to a very troubling new JAMA report finding that 30% of female physicians say they have faced sexual harassment while on the job. The survey also revealed that “close to 75% perceive gender bias at work, while two-thirds said they have actually experienced it.” About half of all current US medical school students are women.

According to a post on RealClearHealth.com, the survey included “just over 1,000 men and women physician-scientists who earned [National Institutes of Health] career development awards between 2006 and 2009. At the time of the survey, all the doctors were in the middle of their career and had an average age of 43. The participants were asked about their experiences as a doctor, including any gender bias or sexual harassment they suffered during their career.” Only 4% of men reported any problems.

While I can’t believe that Dr. Alice Kelly would have taken crap from anyone, the survey outcome troubles me very much. My dad—who was father to five daughters—would certainly believe that even one case of sexual harassment among medical professionals was too much.

Dad believed that civility, professionalism, and mutual respect were behavioral foundation stones in the practice of medicine. No caring and intelligent doctor would participate in that kind of foul conduct. For him, the strict morality of the Golden Rule certainly applied in medicine—“treat others as you would like to be treated.”