60% of female radiologists have been victims of sexual harassment at work, underscoring need for change

Sexual harassment and gender discrimination remain problems within radiology departments and most female radiologists believe it will take more than a decade to achieve equality—if it ever happens at all.

That’s according to a new anonymous survey of nearly 400 female radiologists, developed by an Association of University Radiologists-affiliated task force, published Friday in Academic Radiology. Nearly 85% said they had faced gender discrimination while 60% reported having been a victim of sexual harassment.

More concerning is that an overwhelming majority of victims did not officially report their incident, and three-quarters of those who did say their harasser was never punished. The findings align with previous reports, and can have obvious devastating consequences for victims and also for the patients they treat.

“Such experiences can negatively affect professional self-esteem, confidence, collegiality, career satisfaction, and contact with colleagues, and also can increase the likelihood of burnout. Victims are also more likely to experience anxiety, depression, insomnia, and substance abuse,” first author Marika A. Pitot, MD, of LewisGale Hospital Montgomery in Virginia, and colleagues explained. “These events even have the potential to impair medical performance and ultimately patient outcomes.”

For their research, Pitot et al. created a 27-item, multiple-choice questionnaire based upon previously validated approaches and surveys. The final product was distributed to 3,265 female rads in the “Radiology Chicks” Facebook group between Feb. 17 and March 2, 2020. Respondents were able to choose more than one answer.

The authors gathered 375 responses. Most women were diagnostic subspecialists in practices of 26-60 rads where female physicians made up between 10%-50% of staff. A majority of organizations had one-quarter or fewer female leadership positions. For context, female radiologists represented 23.1% (7,501) of all Medicare-participating U.S. radiologists (32,429) as of January 2018.

Pitot and colleagues found the most frequent offenses were: sexual verbal remarks (86.3%), unwanted touching (45.6%) and lustful staring (38.9%). Meanwhile, sexual coercion (8.4%), stalking (7.5%) and rape (3.1%) occurred less often.

Below are additional findings:

  • More than half of the time faculty was responsible for harassment, followed by another rad department member (43.4%) and patients (35%). Senior physicians (19.2%) and fellow doctors (17.2%), were also common perpetrators.
  • An overwhelming percentage of victims (79.6%) did not officially report the crime. Most kept it to themselves (63.7%) or told someone in another department (72%).
  • Forty of the 375 did file an official report, but only 13 said they were satisfied with how it was resolved. Three-quarters, meanwhile, said the offender wasn’t punished and nearly 40% claimed harassment continued.
  • Looking forward, nearly 90% of respondents said it would take more than 10 years to achieve gender equality in their radiology workplace; nearly 30% said it would never happen.

Small steps to create a better culture include promoting appropriate workplace behavior education and implementing new policies to ensure victims of sexual harassment are protected and offenders are properly punished.

The researchers explained that aside from ensuring more women enter the specialty, addressing these issues will require “upending the traditionally patriarchal medical hierarchy and challenging ingrained gender-based biases.”

Pitot and colleagues did note their study may include selection bias and the results, therefore, shouldn’t be extrapolated to radiology as a whole. Instead, it highlights the existence of a significant problem.

“Challenging these social norms in our workplaces and addressing biases can foster change and pave the way towards gender equality and ultimately the elimination of harassment and discrimination in the radiology workplace,” the authors concluded.