Section Spotlight | #MeToo: My Experience
“Doc, can I ask you something personal?”
It was near the end of our visit. We’d just finished discussing the risks and benefits of anticoagulation for atrial fibrillation.
“In this era when sexual harassment is so rampant, what’s it like for you?” He paused. “What’s it like to be a woman doing your job?”
ACC Commits To Safe Cardiovascular Home for Members and Staff; Establishes Policies, Training
Mary Norine Walsh, MD, FACC
“The ‘#MeToo’ movement and the subsequent removal of Hollywood moguls, entertainers, journalists, members of Congress, and other professions from their jobs are stimulating much-needed discussions of how to break the silence [about sexual harassment and violence] that has largely occurred to date,” write ACC President Mary Norine Walsh, MD, FACC, and ACC CEO Cathy Gates in a recent JACC Leadership Page.
They note these discussions “are not just happening in public forums such as talk shows, magazines like TIME, social media platforms, and major events like the Golden Globe Awards. They are occurring in boardrooms, staff meetings, medical staff lounges, and family rooms across the country. They are also happening at the ACC.” Walsh and Gates highlight efforts by the College, including sexual harassment prevention training for its members and staff and development of a comprehensive policy that will in the future be required for all attendees of ACC events.
“The ACC is the professional home for cardiovascular professionals around the globe,” they write. “Your home should be a place where you are safe and respected. Anything less will not be tolerated. This is our commitment to all ACC members and to ACC staff. We will have succeeded when we can move from #MeToo to #MeNeither.”
I was stunned. That was not the question I was expecting. I looked at him, wondering how best to answer. We’ve all been disappointed, shocked and enraged by the deluge of sexual misconduct allegations that have inundated our nation. My patient’s question made me realize that we all have stories to share. And, perhaps if I share mine, I can empower more women and men to work toward changing this all too pervasive culture.
When I was in college, I was accepted into a summer program for pre-med students interested in cardiology. It was a dream come true. I got to scrub in on coronary artery bypass graft cases, catheterizations and electrophysiology studies. To this day, I can remember the sensation of a live heart beating against my hand. It was exhilarating.
There was one cardiac surgeon who was popular among the summer students and he took a liking to me. He would call me in on Saturdays to scrub into open heart surgeries. It was like I was on-call. When you’re a college student, being on-call seems exciting. He would introduce me to every patient, review the catheterization films with me and made me feel like an integral part of the team. Even as a cardiology fellow, I have not had a chance to be so intimately involved with an operating room (OR) case like I was that summer.
As the summer progressed, I noticed that every time I was scrubbed with him, he would stand uncomfortably close to me. Out of the OR, he would “accidentally” brush his hand over my thigh or rest his hands on my waist. I felt uneasy and would try to move away, but I shrugged it off.
I will never forget one night near the end of the summer. He invited all the summer students out to a celebration dinner and I was sitting next to him. I remember him inching closer to me, pushing his body against mine. As I moved away, he came closer. Throughout the whole night, I kept inching away while he kept coming closer. After what seemed like an eternity, the dinner ended. The next time he contacted me to be “on call,” I feigned sickness. The summer eventually ended and I went back to college. I never told anyone about my experience until now. After all, it was not as if I had been truly assaulted. No harm, no foul. However, I had been left feeling humiliated, ashamed and violated.
"Sexual discrimination and misconduct in medicine is an epidemic. One in three female physicians has experienced sexual harassment. Look around – many of your colleagues and friends have a story."
Fortunately, I have not had a repeat experience. But every day is a challenge as a woman in cardiology. The sexual harassment and gender discrimination may be subtle but it is ever present. A recent piece in the New York Times, Being a Doctor is Hard. It’s Harder for Women, discusses how female physicians are frequently mistaken for nurses, medical assistants or nutritionists, an experience that is shared by many female doctors. Female physicians are often forced to endure derogatory or sexist names, comments about their physical appearance and even unwanted sexual advances.
In a 2016 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, 30 percent of women but only four percent of men reported personally experiencing sexual harassment, among 1,719 new recipients of K08 and K23 career development awards from the National Institutes of Health.1 Of the women who reported sexual harassment, 92 percent reported experiencing sexist remarks or behavior, 41 percent described unwanted sexual advances and 14 percent reported coercive advances. Most women who experienced sexual harassment also perceived a negative effect on their self-confidence (59 percent) or felt that these experiences negatively affected their career advancement (47 percent).
A survey published in 2000 found that of 3,000 full-time academic medical faculty, 52 percent reported sexual harassment.2 While there has been a reduction in sexual harassment, the present-day rates are inexcusably high.
Sexual discrimination and misconduct in medicine is an epidemic. One in three female physicians has experienced sexual harassment. Look around – many of your colleagues and friends have a story. This is an important time. We have been given an opportunity to ensure that the future generation of women (and men) never know the shame and fear of being a victim of sexual harassment.
This article was authored by Emily Lau, MD, general cardiology fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, MA.
- Jagsi R, Griffith KA, Jones R, et al. JAMA 2016;315:2120-1.
- Carr PL, Ash AS, Friedman RH, et al. Ann Intern Med 2000;132:889-96.
Clinical Topics: Arrhythmias and Clinical EP, Cardiac Surgery, Invasive Cardiovascular Angiography and Intervention, Implantable Devices, SCD/Ventricular Arrhythmias, Atrial Fibrillation/Supraventricular Arrhythmias, Cardiac Surgery and Arrhythmias
Keywords: ACC Publications, Cardiology Magazine, ACC18, ACC Annual Scientific Session, Sexual Harassment, Shame, American Medical Association, Faculty, Medical, Social Media, Friends, Leadership, Operating Rooms, Nutritionists, Staff Development, Emotions, Physicians, Women, Sexism, Fear, Violence, Sex Offenses, Students, Medical Staff, Coronary Artery Bypass, Catheterization, Social Responsibility, Electrophysiology, Surgeons
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