Hesitation about reporting cases of sexual harassment and experiences of being made to feel inferior were common among female health trainees and professionals, as per the findings of a survey conducted across various medical centres in the world. The survey findings were reported in The Lancet special series on advancing women in science, medicine and global health. The centres covered by the survey also includes B J Medical College in Pune.
Between February 2017 and January 2018, a total of 653 women across various medical centres — Weill Cornell Medicine in New York, The Haitian Group for the study of Kaposi’s Sarcoma and Opportunistic Infections in Haiti, Weill Bugando School of Medicine at the Catholic University of Health and Allied Sciences in Tanzania and B J Medical College in Pune — were part of the survey that focussed on finding gender-based challenges before female health trainees and professionals.
It collected data on three such challenges in the workplace — work-life balance, gender discrimination and sexual harassment or assault — and used in-depth interviews and focus groups for that. It found that female global health trainees and professionals faced significant gender-specific challenges to career advancement, with work-life balance being the most common barrier. “The most alarming finding was the high prevalence of gender discrimination, sexual harassment and assault, which were systemic barriers that the participants in the survey faced at all stages of their careers in all countries,” stated the report.
A wake-up call on gender inequality & the need to fix it
It has been observed that after taking parental leave, men in academia enjoy a more successful career than their female counterparts. The latter are less likely to receive faculty appointments or leadership positions, and if they publish research in high-impact journals, are less likely to be cited. It was instances of such gender inequality, and an aim to end all forms of discrimination against women in science, medicine and global health, which prompted the Lancet Medical Journal, one of the oldest peer reviewed journals, to come out with a special series. The series is a wake-up call that states that the fight for gender equity is everyone’s responsibility.
Of the 653 women recruited across these centres, 346 completed the survey and as many as 291 women reported at least one challenge they faced. As many as 228 reported work-life balance issues, 154 reported gender discrimination and 160 reported sexual harassment or assault.
Those who reported gender discrimination issues shared experiences of being made to feel inferior, and discouragement from promotions or leadership positions on the basis of gender. Sexual harassment or assault was another major issue, with unwelcome sexual advances reported by 120 participants and 32 women saying they felt coerced to engage in unwanted sexual behaviour. Only 35 of 160 participants who experienced sexual harassment or assault reported it to anyone.
The remaining 125 participants cited reasons such as assuming the experience was normal, or would not be resolved, lack of a reporting system, fear of negative repercussions or jeopardising their academic standing, and fear of not being believed as reasons for not reporting such incidents. “Overall, the major themes elicited from qualitative discussions included fear, futility and resignation,” said researchers.
The women also expressed resigned acceptance about handling work and all household responsibilities. Several participants admitted to declining leadership opportunities such as promotions and committee chair positions because of family obligations. Many reported the lack of a safe and unbiased system for seeking help following harassment or assault.
In some countries, the participants also viewed gender discrimination as a normal part of their culture, Dr Aarti Kinikar, principal investigator for the trial site in India, at B J Medical College, told The Indian Express. She said centre-specific data has not been disclosed yet and only overall findings of the survey have been reported. Researchers admitted that the pattern of acceptance of sexual harassment and assault seemed universal. But they said ongoing public promotion of gender equality in the workplace, formal policies against gender discrimination, clear reporting methods for harassment and an independent committee to review and address complaints help empower women.