Leadership in Medical Education: Addressing Sexual Harassment in Science and Medicine

By Michael Gisondi(@MikeGisondi

Women in science and medicine commonly experience sexual harassment in the workplace, which exacts a great toll on the individual victim, affects numerous public health issues, and must be addressed through interventions targeted at organizational leaders.

On October 30, 2018, I attended a presentation titled, “Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine”, sponsored by the Office of Faculty Development and Diversity at Stanford University School of Medicine. The speakers were Elizabeth L Hillman, President of Mills College, and Frazier Benya, Senior Program Officer for the Committee on Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine at the National Academies. Their lecture summarized the key findings of a 2018 consensus report by the National Academies, Sexual Harassment of Women in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

I learned a great deal from this presentation and spent much of the day reflecting on my role in addressing sexual harassment. The following is a summary of the notes I recorded during the presentation and some additional information from discussions that followed.

Sexual Harassment of Women in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine is a 300-page report that is free to download as a PDF. It summarizes 40 years of research studies concerning the sexual harassment of women in science, engineering, and medicine, including the experiences of faculty members at all ranks, students, and other trainees.

The findings of the report address three central questions:

  1. What is the prevalence of sexual harassment of women in science and medicine?
  2. What is the impact of sexual harassment?
  3. What interventions will reduce the prevalence and impact?


  • Women in science commonly experience sexual harassment in the United States.
  • Medicine is second only to the US Military in reported incidences of sexual harassment. For comparison, 50% of women in medicine, 25% of women in engineering, and 20% of women in academic sciences have been sexually harassed.
  • Uncommon: sexual advances and sexual coercion of the quid pro quo type.
  • Common: sexist insults, derisive comments about gender.
  • Women of color are sexually harassed more commonly than white women.
  • Gender minorities are harassed more commonly than straight women.
  • Male-dominated departments (e.g., more men than women, more men than women in leadership roles) tend to have higher rates of sexual harassment.
  • The greatest predictor of sexual harassment is a ‘tolerant department’, one in which reporting is deemed risky for victims and offenders are known to escape sanction.


  • Women who experience sexual harassment report increased rates of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • The public health impact includes a decrease in the quality and quantity of science produced by those who have been sexually harassed.
  • There are enormous legal and financial risks to departments that have a culture deemed tolerant of harassment.


  • Target interventions to prevent sexual harassment at institutional and leadership levels.
  • Do not expect victims of sexual harassment to fix the problem through greater reporting – they should not bear the burden of solving this crisis.
  • Improve institutional transparency of the rates of reported incidents, as well as the outcomes of those reports.
  • Hold organizations and institutions accountable for reducing sexual harassment.
  • Consider creating anonymous reporting mechanisms. Some apps are available to facilitate this process.
  • Professional societies have an obligation to address this issue for their members.
  • Federal agencies and policy makers must identify new research agendas aimed at reducing the prevalence and impact of sexual harassment.
  • Institutional responses to sexual harassment should be similar to research misconduct.
  • Educate faculty mentors and trainees regarding best practices, expectation setting, and reporting mechanisms.

I encourage you to explore the website: Sexual Harassment in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and view this 2-minute video: Sexual Harassment in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

Use the social media hashtag: #ScienceToo as you comment on this issue or this blog post.


National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/24994.

Featured image via surdumihail on Pixabay