Do you know what I think is most surprising about the recent Harvey Weinstein scandal? Absolutely nothing. Same story; different day. It was Bill Cosby and Bill O’Reilly last week and its Harvey Weinstein this week. Guaranteed it will be someone else next week.  And these are just the men who are rich and powerful enough to make the news.  It doesn’t even deserve to be called news. Everyone knows that workplace sexual harassment exists in virtually every organization where a power imbalance exists – also known as practically everywhere.

The world of healthcare is full of power imbalances – physicians and other healthcare providers, managers and staff, staff and students…as well as any of the above and patients. However, I think we all recognize sexual impropriety of any form involving patients as being entirely unacceptable.  What we often fail to identify are the numerous forms of sexual harassment – some subtle, some not so much – that are inflicted every day and in every way on healthcare providers by other providers of healthcare.

Some informal research into sexual harassment in healthcare has observed that it is so commonplace now that “it might as well be in the job descriptions”.  We have become desensitized to it.  We even make excuses for it. How often have you heard, “oh, he’s just kidding “or “that’s just the way he is…he’s harmless”.  And the complex power dynamic that exists within healthcare organizations often makes it challenging to bring allegations of harassment forward and to have those assertions addressed without repercussion (or what feels like repercussion).  This is particularly true of students, who arguably have the least power in the workplace and are thus, the most at risk of being the victims of sexual harassment.

Over the past two decades the CRTO has investigated a handful of cases of sexual harassment perpetrated by staff RTs on student RTs.  And we heard the same “oh, it was just a joke” and “he didn’t mean anything by it” types of responses.  However, there is nothing particularly funny about having to stifle a full-body shudder when the person who is responsible for signing-off your competencies gives you a shoulder massage.  Or having them regale you with the details of their love life.  Students are often very reluctant to speak up in these situations because they depend on the staff RTs for good reviews and recommendations for possible future hiring.  In the past, many student RTs have remained silent, although that has fortunately started to change. 

A number of years ago U.S Homeland Security coined the phrase “if you see something, say something”.  The same thing applies here:  employer-employee; male-female; staff-students – we all need to call people out on their unacceptable behaviours. And if you are the one being harassed, the CRTO encourages you to speak up. We can’t change the fact that collectively the healthcare profession sat back and let of sexual harassment become part of the workplace culture. What matters is what happens now.

Carole Hamp

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