Women Medical School Faculty Perceive Gender Bias, Sexual Harassment Male Faculty Seem Unaware, Unaffected

Contact: Gina M. Digravio, 617-638-8491 | gina.digravio@bmc.org

(Boston, Mass.) — Many women teaching at medical schools perceive that they are discriminated against and sexually harassed, according to a study from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and Boston University School of Medicine. Men seem to be relatively unaware of the problems and much less affected by them.

The study, published in the June 6 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine, found that female faculty were more than two and a half times likely to perceive gender discrimination in their work environment: 77 percent of women vs. 30 percent of men. And more than half the women reported that gender bias had hindered their professional advancement, compared with 9 percent of men.

Sexual harassment also appears to be common for women faculty, with serious forms of harassment – such as unwanted sexual advances, bribery or threats – occurring frequently (reported by almost 30 percent of female faculty). More than half of responding female faculty reported being sexually harassed by a superior or colleague, compared to 5 percent of men.

These negative experiences do not necessarily restrict a woman’s career advancement, however. Women who report discrimination appear to be as productive as other women – publishing similar numbers of research articles – but are less satisfied overall with their careers. However, many more women than men also felt that gender had worked in their favor, giving them an advantage in professional advancement.

While other studies have looked at gender discrimination and harassment among medical students and residents, this is the first study to focus on medical school faculty.

“The issue of gender bias in medical schools has broad impact. If we don’t correct this now, it will be passed on to the next generation of physicians in training,” says Phyllis Carr, MD, a physician in Primary Care and Women’s Health at MGH, and the paper’s first author.

To gather the results, surveys were sent to 3,332 men and women at 24 medical schools across the United States. The respondents were spread across age, gender and specialties and were asked 177 questions about demographic characteristics, professional goals, work situation, self-esteem, family responsibilities and experiences with discrimination, harassment, mentoring and other topics.

“These findings are particularly significant, as women now make up one-quarter of medical school faculty members in the U.S.,” Carr says. “Despite this increase, previous studies have shown that women in academic medicine seem to encounter more gender discrimination and sexual harassment than do women physicians in the community.”

The study also found sexual harassment to be more prevalent in certain fields. For instance, female surgeons and other physicians in historically male-dominated specialties were twice as likely to report being harassed as women in primary care, possibly because these specialties include fewer women and tend to place a higher value on hierarchy and authority, the study says. Also, women who reported being sexually harassed were more likely than other women to perceive gender bias in the overall academic environment and in professional advancement.

“The saddest thing is the ‘gender disconnect.’ The vast majority of women medical faculty – at all stages in their careers – suspect that gender bias is both a personal and systemic problem in medical academia. At the same time, most of their male colleagues see their own professional advancement as occurring in a gender-free meritocracy,” says Arlene Ash, PhD, a research professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine, and the paper’s second author.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funded the study in part. Massachusetts General Hospital, established in 1811, is the original and largest teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School. MGH conducts the largest hospital-based research program in the United States, with an annual research budget of more than $200 million and major research centers in AIDS, the neuro-sciences, cardio-vascular research, cancer, cutaneous biology, trans-plantation biology and photo-medicine. In 1994, MGH joined with Brigham and Women’s Hospital to form Partners HealthCare System, an integrated health care delivery system comprising the two academic medical centers, specialty and community hospitals, a network of physician groups and nonacute and home health services.

Boston University School of Medicine, established in 1873, is a leading academic and research institution, with an enrollment of nearly 630 students and nearly 1,000 full- and part-time faculty members. It is known for its programs in arthritis, cardiovascular disease, cancer, human genetics, pulmonary disease and dermatology, among others. The school is affiliated with Boston Medical Center, its principal teaching hospital, and Boston Veterans Administration Medical Center. Along with Boston Medical Center and 13 community health care providers, the School of Medicine is a partner in Boston HealthNet, a consumer-driven urban health network.