UNC surgeons present eye opening study on sexual harassment

The newest study conducted by a team at UNC Surgery finds that 58 percent of women surgeons experience sexual harassment. The currently unpublished project, presented at the recent Academic Surgical Congress, examines the scope of sexual harassment experienced by surgeons.

UNC surgeons present eye opening study on sexual harassment click to enlarge Kristalyn Gallagher, DO, and Aproove Nayyar, MBBS, after winning their awards.

Postdoctoral Research Fellow Apoorve Nayyar, MBBS, presented a project titled, “A National Survey of Sexual Harassment Among Surgeons,” at the Academic Surgical Congress held February 5-7, 2019 in Houston, Texas. The project was a collaboration with senior author Kristalyn Gallagher, DO, FACOS FACS, Professor of Surgery & Chief of Breast Surgery Section at UNC-Chapel Hill along with several institutions and other authors including Kandace McGuire at VCU, MD; Lillian Erdahl, MD, at University of Iowa; Thomas Varghese Jr., MD, at University of Utah; David Ollila, MD, Paula Strassle, MSPH, & Sara Scarlet, MD, at UNC; and visual abstract co-author Heather Logghe, MD, at Thomas Jefferson University.

The project won three awards at the ASC including 2019 AAS Best Overall Abstract Award, 2019 AAS Outstanding Resident Research Award – Outcomes, and Society of Asian Academic Surgeons best ASC Abstract Award. The awardee for the AAS Best Overall Abstract is invited to be the faculty AAS delegate at the Surgical Research Society of Australia's 56th Annual Scientific Congress which will be held in November 2019 in Melbourne, Australia. Dr. Gallagher will be presenting their findings at that international meeting.

Their project took shape with a growing body of evidence suggesting that experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace is a common occurrence for women across all professions, which can be harmful personally and professionally. While studies have reported the incidence of sexual harassment in medicine, no study had thus far examined the nature or scope of sexual harassment experienced by surgeons.

To collect current data, an anonymous, electronic survey was distributed via a web-based platform to members of the American College of Surgeons (ACS), Association of Women Surgeons (AWS), and through targeted social media platforms from April 2018 to July 2018.

Over 1000 surgeons completed the survey, of which 74% identified as women, a response rate of 18% among US women surgeons. 25% identified as men, which represents 1% of male surgeons in the US. 

In the 12 months preceding the survey, 58% of women surgeons experienced some form of sexual harassment. The most common form of harassment was "unwanted verbal or physical conduct of sexual nature" and "unwelcome sexual advances or physical contact." The study found that residents and fellows were more than twice as likely to be harassed, as compared to faculty members. When asked about sexual assault, 14% of women surgeons reported experiencing sexual assault by a person from their workplace. The majority of these were not isolated incidents.

Furthermore, among those that experienced harassment and assault, only 16% reported it to any institutional authority. The most common reasons cited for not reporting included fear of a negative impact on career, fear of being dismissed/inaction, fear of retribution and fear of appearing weak. For men, the most common reason cited was the fact that it was an isolated incident, reiterating the fact that for women these are frequent and repetitive incidents.

Among those that reported over half (53%) said NO ACTION was taken based on their reporting. This is of great concern, that even upon reporting no action was taken by the institution, which would further discourage victims from speaking up.

There is an alarming level of sexual harassment and abuse prevalent within our surgical workplaces. Our current systems and policies do not make it safe for victims to speak up; there needs to be an implementation of policies that not only support and protect the victim but also investigate ALL complaints with due diligence. This is our call for action - there is an urgent need to improve reporting mechanisms and implement system changes to reduce the incidence of sexual harassment in surgery. 

Their research was just featured in a recent Forbes.com article

Follow Kristalyn Gallagher, DO on twitter @Dr_KGallagher and Apoorve Nayyar, MBBS, @apoorvenayyar.

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