With the rise of the #MeToo Movement, in which victims of sexual assault raise awareness about its rampant presence in the workplace, different industries have been put under the spotlight for the harassment that occurs behind closed doors. The healthcare industry is no exception to this.
Healthcare is an appealing platform for many perpetrators; its hierarchical system allows for the sexual assault of lower-status workers accompanied by the stigma against reporting a superior or patient. Sexual assault is defined by the U.S. Department of Justice as “any nonconsensual sexual act prescribed by Federal, tribal, or State law, including when the victim lacks capacity to consent”. According to an article in the Postgraduate Medical Journal, as much as 30-40% of female health care workers have experienced such sexual assault, with the percentages even higher in academic medicine specifically. Furthermore, up to 70% of female physicians, states Harvard Business Journal, will or have been harassed in their lifetime.
Although healthcare is rapidly shifting to become an equal-opportunity industry, it is inherently biased towards men, constructing the means for a patriarchy to exist in a hospital setting. Delegating powerful positions exclusively to men encourages exploitation of lower-status workers, who refuse to report assaults in fear of losing their job or reputation at work. Female physicians, nurses, and other health care workers suffer due to the implicit bias and greater accreditation towards men, especially those in higher positions. On the other side of the spectrum, these workers also have faced assault from patients. As Suzanne Carroll, RN, MS, AOCN shares in her article “Is Sexual Harassment of Nurses Prevalent in Health Care?,” workers, specifically nurses, tend to avoid reporting patients because they are taught to handle inappropriate behavior as a symptom of their illness.
Currently, there seem to be more consequences than benefits to reporting one’s sexual assault. To change the dynamics of this toxic work environment, steps need to be taken to uproot male supremacy. More female representation in powerful positions is necessary to eliminate the naturalization of a male-dominated workplace and bridge the gender disparity that propels the exploitation of lower-status workers. If incidents do occur, protective rights for victims should be implemented to encourage them to speak up without fearing consequences. Although progress is being made, the healthcare industry will not be free of sexual assault without tackling the gender inequality it stems from.