Study on Sexual Harassment and Gender Disparities Among Gynecologic Oncologists Highlighted in ASCO’s 2019 Press Program

Marina Stasenko, MD

Marina Stasenko, MD

Researchers from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) shared new data from a survey of members of the Society of Gynecologic Oncology (SGO) showing that sexual harassment and observed gender discrimination continue to be significant issues in the medical community. The results of the study found that more than 60 percent of gynecologic oncologists had experienced sexual harassment, while only 10 percent of survey respondents reported the incident. The findings were presented as part of the press program for this year’s annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO).

“The genesis of this research came out of informal conversations with my colleagues,” said lead study author Marina Stasenko, MD, a fellow in gynecologic oncology at MSK. “Sexual harassment has been a significant topic of discussion in the media, but in the medical community, these conversations have been largely limited to personal anecdotes discussed privately behind closed doors. Even with more and more female physicians in the field, gender disparities are still a substantial issue. We hope this study will increase the awareness of sexual harassment and gender inequalities within gynecologic oncology and overall in the healthcare field, and open the doors of communication for people to feel more comfortable confronting these issues head-on.”

The study was conducted as an anonymous survey sent to all 1,566 members of the SGO across the United States, with the goal of evaluating gender disparities and issues with sexual harassment in the field. In all, 402 members of the SGO responded to the confidential questionnaire. In addition to answering 30 questions on the subject matter, they were asked to share their gender, age, and the academic setting in which they work. The survey was completed by 255 women and 147 men (a 26 percent response rate).

The results of the study confirmed that sexual harassment in the healthcare field is still an issue, as it is in many professions, with 64 percent of respondents stating that they had experienced sexual harassment during training or practice. The rate was 71 percent for women and 51 percent for men. Only 10 percent of those who experienced harassment reported it. The most common reasons for not reporting sexual harassment were that the person did not think the incident was significant enough (40 percent), they did not think any action would be taken (37 percent), or they feared retribution for speaking up (34 percent).

The study also addressed gender as it relates to professional development, with 34 percent of women reporting that their gender had impacted their career advancement compared to 10 percent of men. In addition, 64 percent of women said that gender may have played a direct role in their salary compared to 19 percent of men, and 91 percent of men said they did not believe there is a gender pay gap in gynecologic oncology compared to 57 percent of women.    

“It’s important that the medical community create an environment where this type of behavior is unacceptable and women and men feel they can speak up without fear of reprisal,” said Carol L. Brown, MD, FACOG, FACS, a gynecologist oncologist at MSK who was also a co-author of the study. In addition to her work as a surgeon who cares for women with cancer, Dr. Brown is Director of the Office of Diversity Programs in Clinical Care, Research, and Training at MSK. “This study helps us better understand the current landscape in one area — gynecologic oncology — so we can address these issues openly and honestly.”

The final survey question was open-ended, asking what changes the respondents wanted to see implemented. Common answers included increased female leadership, open salary reporting, more transparency in hiring and promotions, more flexibility for both mothers and fathers, and a general acknowledgement within the field that sexual harassment and gender biases exist. “I think it’s important to highlight that many responders felt that our field of gynecologic oncology was doing fairly well in terms of gender disparities, but there is still much more to be done,” said Dr. Stasenko. “I’m hopeful that with the growing number of women in oncology and, more importantly, in leadership positions, and with a greater awareness of the effects of sexual harassment and gender biases on our field, we will see a culture and policy shift over the next decade.”