Reshma Jagsi: Radiology's expert on sexual harassment of women in medicine

Reshma Jagsi, MD, DPhil. Photo courtesy of the University of Michigan.

Reshma Jagsi, MD, DPhil, never would have imagined she'd become an expert on sexual harassment and assault in the workplace, especially in her own field.  

A professor, deputy chair of the department of radiation oncology at the University of Michigan and director for the Center for Bioethics and Social Sciences in Medicine (CBSSM), Jagsi has spent more than a decade of her career studying the causes of women's persistent under-representation in leadership positions in academic medicine. 

In her most recent study, published in JAMA in May 2016, Jagsi and her fellow colleagues found that 30 percent of female doctors in the U.S. have been sexually harassed or assaulted in the workplace. In contrast, only 4 percent of men reported that they've experienced the same.   

Jagsi and her team surveyed roughly 1,100 men and women in medicine and science, asking them about experiences with gender bias, inappropriate sexual advances and threats. In addition to a third of women surveyed having experienced sexual harassment, 60 percent of that group added that it had a negative effect on their self-confidence and 50 percent said it negatively impacted their career advancement.  

“We are now in an age where almost half of all medical students are women and there’s a growing need to make sure everyone is able to maximize their potential,”  Jagsi told TIME in regard to her study.  

The findings surprised her—and so has a recent ABC News-Washington Post poll released in October showing more than half of American women have experienced unwanted or inappropriate sexual advances in their life. In response to this and the explosion of the #MeToo movement to bring cases of sexual harassment and assault to the forefront, Jagsi published an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine regarding the topic of sexual harassment and assault in medicine, appropriately titled "Sexual Harassment in Medicine - #MeToo."  

Her editorial has received great amounts of support from both male and female colleagues at the University of Michigan. In turn, Jagsi hopes it has prompted overdue conversations throughout the university and at other academic institutions regarding sexual harassment and assault in medicine.

"I have always found compelling the evidence regarding unconscious bias and gendered expectations regarding domestic labor. I really thought that overt harassment and discrimination were unlikely to be common experiences in the modern era," Jagsi told HealthImaging

In her editorial, she shares the stories of female physicians who have experienced sexual harassment or assault in the workplace. All personally reached out to Jagsi, motivated to share their own stories because of her research. However, according to Jagsi, none of the women who contacted her have reported their experiences.  

"The brave physicians who've contacted me say they remained silent and questioned their self-worth after their experiences, wondering whether they brought it on themselves," she wrote in her editorial.  

Covering the themes of credibility and reputation in the field of medicine throughout her editorial, Jagsi describes her own experience when a woman asked her for advice about possibly convening a workshop on sexual harassment and "wondering whether it would be career suicide.”

Jagsi personally describes "politely rebuffing sexual advances" from a prominent male surgeon whom she now consciously avoids. Admittedly, the experience made her question her own self-worth—asking why her scholarship not substantial enough him to see her as a qualified colleague instead of objectifying her.  

Many of the stories also came from female trainees. One shared her story, advising any female trainee who has experienced sexual harassment or assault during training to leave immediately and not worry about "potential damage to their reputation" or missed opportunities.  

"I think that many women feel that if they were only 'better' in some way, they might not have been targeted," Jagsi explained to HealthImaging. "Quite simply, I don't think that aggressors are as discriminating in their targets; this behavior is about the failings of the perpetrator, not the women he subjects to his inappropriate conduct."  

She believes that there is always a risk of being labeled a victim if a woman reports sexual harassment, especially in a male dominated field like medicine and science.  

"I don't think medicine is necessarily different from other fields, but women in medicine have uniformly devoted so many years of their lives to the long process of medical education that the stakes are certainly very high for female physicians," Jagsi told HealthImaging.  

What does Jagsi suggest to medical practices and academic institutions on how to create a safer place for female physicians and medical trainees?  

"We need culture change, where women feel safe reporting their experiences, where claims are promptly and fairly investigated and where inappropriate behavior is no longer tolerated," Jagsi said. "I think culture change is a challenging process, but the fact that the profession is talking more openly about these issues is important, so that we can develop interventions to accelerate the change that is so sorely needed in this regard."