Gender harassment happens every day in health care organizations, academic medicine, research labs, and other corners of the science, technology, engineering, and math worlds. It’s largely hidden — except to those experiencing it — unlike its more egregious counterpart, sexual harassment, which often makes headlines.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) describe gender harassment as “verbal and nonverbal behaviors that convey hostility, objectification, exclusion, or second-class status.” It undermines women, exhausts and demoralizes them, and strips them of their motivation, eventually driving them out of the workforce.
As women physicians working in academic medicine, we know this firsthand.
With five of our colleagues, we filed a federal lawsuit in 2019 alleging sex, age, and race discrimination by Mount Sinai Health System and four of its male employees, including the dean of the medical school. (Editor’s note: All the documents are public, and the defendants have denied any wrongdoing.)
As our complaint details, we left Mount Sinai emotionally and psychologically scarred after being demeaned by male leadership, denied promotions, underpaid compared to male colleagues, and systematically gaslit by internal reporting structures that were meant to protect us. We were demoted from leadership positions and assigned menial tasks, such as managing a Mailchimp subscription list. Some of us were ignored and frozen out of important work streams, and were forbidden to meet alone with longtime colleagues and mentors. Members of our group were referred to as “bitches” and “cunts” by our colleagues without any repercussions. Those are just a few of the forms of mistreatment we endured at Mount Sinai’s Arnhold Institute for Global Health.
We believed that our hard work and years of service to the institution would protect us and allow us to be measured on our merits. Instead we struck the “iceberg of sexual harassment,” and it sank our careers.
A 2018 NASEM report on sexual harassment in academic sciences, engineering, and medicine introduced the analogy of an iceberg to describe harassment in these fields. Sexual assault and coercion are the visible and appalling tip of the iceberg. People recognize their severity and the personal damage they wreak, the media often cover these stories, and perpetrators are sometimes held accountable. Gender harassment, in contrast is the huge mass below the surface, largely unseen but nonetheless ruinous.
Women in health care rarely report harassment due to the risk of retaliation. Compounding this, the internal systems that should assist employees all too often make protecting perpetrators and institutional reputations their top priority. Our meetings with Mount Sinai human resources representatives were humiliating and degrading, providing neither safety nor protection, as we recount in our complaint. In one meeting, they referred to a book on “why women think they are being discriminated against when they are not.” Because of these systemic failures, the legal route was our only resort.
Since filing our lawsuit, we are seeing the enormity of the iceberg. Scores of doctors, nurses, staff, and medical students