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Gender Bias, Sexual Harassment Common in Oncology, Surveys Show

— June 15, 2021

Both men and women oncologists report harassment and marginalization within the field.

A newly released University of Texas survey of U.S. oncologists has revealed that the vast majority, 70%, “reported incidents from peers and/or supervisors” of sexual harassment from 2019 to 2020.  The research team also found the incidence was higher among women than men (80%, 56%) in oncology.  In experiencing harassment from colleagues, both men and women reported equally negative outcomes in “mental health, sense of safety, and turnover intentions.”

The survey’s findings were presented at the June 5 at the virtual American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) 2021.  Researchers concluded in their report, “This is the first study in oncology to systematically characterize the incidence of sexual harassment experienced by oncologists.  Our findings demonstrate the impact of sexual harassment on men and women oncologists on multiple domains of workplace experience.  This study provides critical data to inform the need for and design of effective protective and preventive workplace policies in oncology.”

Gender Bias, Sexual Harassment Common in Oncology, Surveys Show
Photo by Michelle Leman from Pexels

“Our findings demonstrate that the impact of sexual harassment on both men and women is tangible and is not different,” added lead author Ishwaria Subbiah, MD, a medical oncologist at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, in Houston, Texas. “The survey’s recall period [about harassment] was in the previous twelve months. The respondents weren’t reflecting on a lifetime of events.  That’s part of what makes the findings that much more sobering.”

Overall, 69% of respondents – both men and women – reported some form of gender-based harassment in the workplace, 17% reported unwanted sexual attention, and 3% reported sexual coercion from peers/supervisors.  Women also reported higher rates of sexual advances and “the greatest proportional disparity was in unwanted sexual attention (22% of women vs 9% of men).”

Last year, a similar survey conducted by The Cancer Letter found women in academic oncology, specifically, who have encountered gender bias at work tend to have little support from the institutions at which they’re studying and, thus, the survey found “62% of women” choose not to report at all.

Reshma Jagsi, director of the Center for Bioethics and Social Sciences at the University of Michigan, said, “These findings speak deeply to the culture of medicine and the very real fears that women have that if they complain about something like that, they will always be identified as a whiner, they will be marginalized, they will suddenly be labeled as someone who is not strong enough, it will be a distraction from their professional contributions, they will bear a stigma.”

“The study as a whole, the incidents of discrimination, harassment, are really shocking and disturbing,” agreed Leonidas Platanias, director of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center at Northwestern University. “This obviously needs to change, and it needs to happen fast.  It’s totally unacceptable at all levels.  It negatively impacts cancer research.  These situations can affect how teams function and, ultimately, have a negative impact in research.”

The new survey by the University of Texas included 153 women and 118 men and was carried out in 2020.


In Previous Year, 70% of Oncologists Reported Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment of oncologists.

Sexual harassment reporting structures in oncology are broken, The Cancer Letter survey finds

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