KU Medical Center joins Time’s Up Healthcare
April 23, 2019
By Kay Hawes
The University of Kansas Medical Center has joined a movement to end sexual harassment and gender bias in health care, and Kimberly Templeton, M.D., professor of orthopedic surgery and orthopedic residency director at the University of Kansas School of Medicine, is an advisor to the national initiative.
Time's Up Healthcare, an effort to address the issues of sexual harassment and gender inequality in health care, was launched this spring. It is the health care-focused arm of the Time's Up Now organization that was created in 2017 and first focused on the entertainment industry.
"There was a recognition that health care has many of the same issues that the entertainment industry has, which includes a great imbalance of power for those in the field," Templeton said.
Templeton also noted that the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine issued a detailed report, Sexual Harassment of Women, in 2018. This report examined the issue and found that it negatively impacts the recruitment, retention and advancement of women in science.
"There are so many implications to this, from burnout to recruitment and career advancement," Templeton said. "It's clear that it's time for major institutions in health care to address sexual harassment and gender bias in all forms and make it clear that it is not acceptable."
The University of Kansas Medical Center is one of the first organizations to support Time's Up Healthcare and has chosen to become a signatory organization. The medical center includes the schools of Health Professions, Medicine and Nursing, as well as a sizeable research enterprise.
"We have pledged our commitment to the Time's Up Healthcare core statements," said Robert D. Simari, executive vice chancellor of the University of Kansas Medical Center and executive dean of the University of Kansas School of Medicine. "We believe that sexual harassment and gender inequality have no place in the health care workplace, and we are committed to examining and strengthening our structures and processes as we work toward the goal of a safe, respectful and equitable workplace."
What does sexual harassment look like?
According to the Academies Report, as the workforce has become more diverse, more women are experiencing sexual harassment. Templeton also points out that many people don't understand what sexual harassment is.
"Many men think sexual harassment is sexual assault, but assault is actually, and fortunately, uncommon. What is common are sexual innuendos, disparaging comments and gender discrimination," she said. "And it is the perception, not the intent, that makes it harassment. Most of the men who harass explain their actions by saying they are trying to be funny, when in reality sexual harassment is an attempt to maintain the status quo."
Most workplaces turn to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to define and explain sexual harassment. Generally speaking, it is behavior characterized by the making of unwelcome and inappropriate sexual remarks or physical advances. It can be subtle or direct, and the victim can be a man or a woman. Those doing the harassing are most often male.
While catcalling (whistling, shouting or making comments of a sexual nature to a woman passing by), may be an extreme example, it is not unheard of in a university environment. Sexual innuendo, interrupting or speaking over women, mansplaining (the explanation of something by a man, usually to a woman, in a condescending manner) or using terms like "murse" to describe a male nurse (which may be a way to harass both men and women), are all forms of sexual harassment.
"Sexual harassment has nothing to do with sex or sexual attraction, and everything to do with power," Templeton said. "That's why it's critical that in environments where there is a power imbalance, as there often is in higher education and in health care, those in power are aware and it clear that this is unacceptable behavior."
If the harasser is tolerated and excuses are made for him because "he was just trying to be funny," then others get the message that the harassment is acceptable and perhaps even expected. Ultimately, Templeton said, that can result in the creation of a hostile work environment and professional dissatisfaction.
Templeton noted that studies of physicians show that sexual harassment can lead to increased physician burnout. "I am studying physician burnout, and sexual harassment is one of the factors that can increase the risk of physicians becoming burned out. And for women, that risk exists whether they are the direct victim of the harassment or a bystander to the harassment. Both of these can make a woman feel disconnected from her workplace, especially if it appears that the behavior is tolerated and there are no repercussions."
Changes in culture
While it may have been common in the past to overlook sexual harassment in the workplace, more institutions and organizations are recognizing that sexual harassment is an issue that cannot be tolerated. In February, the National Institutes of Health provided an update on its efforts to address sexual harassment in science, noting "the goal of the perpetrator, most commonly but not exclusively a man, is to objectify, exclude, demoralize, diminish and coerce the victim, most commonly a woman, to exert power over her. It's morally indefensible, it's unacceptable, and it presents a major obstacle that is keeping women from achieving their rightful place in science."
The NIH has created a working group to develop recommendations for future actions, noting, "We want to send a clear message to the institutions we fund and researchers who lead the research that sexual harassment is unacceptable."
In late March, the NIH reminded the research community that it can bar scientists accused of sexual harassment from serving as peer reviewers.
Earlier this month, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine announced the launch of an Action Collaborative on Preventing Sexual Harassment in Higher Education. The University of Kansas is one of 43 colleges, universities and research institutes that has joined this initiative to prevent sexual harassment across all disciplines in higher education.
As organizations in science and higher education move to take action, the issue is on the minds of leaders at the KU Medical Center, who strongly support the university's commitment to these efforts.
"With approximately 73% of our faculty, 77% of our staff, and 80% of our students being female, the culture that prevails in the University of Kansas Medical Center School of Health Professions is that of ‘zero tolerance' for any form of sexual harassment or gender discrimination," said Abiodun Akinwuntan, Ph.D., MPH, MBA, dean of the KU School of Health Professions. "This culture represents one of the major emphases of the School of Health Professions in our continued efforts to recruit and retain a diverse workforce."
Sally Maliski, Ph.D., RN, FAAN, dean of the KU School of Nursing, noted that targets of sexual harassment in nursing may be men or women. "Our population of disparity in nursing is men," she said. "While the number of men entering nursing has increased recently, men are still very much the minority in nursing nationally as well as in Kansas. As such, studies have shown that men in nursing face negative stereotyping, false assumptions about their profession or gender identity, and lack of acceptance by patients and colleagues," she said. "Sexual harassment — of either women or men — is not acceptable in the School of Nursing."
Maliski pointed out that the percentages of men in programs vary, but the overwhelming majority of nursing students are women. That may mean that women may be harassed more on the job than in school, but it also may mean that men are harassed too. In the KU School of Nursing, 11% of undergraduates are men, 13% of graduate students are men, and 14% of students in the KU-Community College Partnership program are men.
"As more men enter the profession and the image of nursing in the media improves to reflect the profession of nursing today, I believe men will see the profession as attractive for them and old stereotypes will fade," Maliski said, noting that might lead to less harassment overall.
And as old stereotypes fade, perhaps the need to reinforce the old status quo will as well.
"As more women enter health care and higher education, you can see a generational difference," Templeton said. "I think the medical students, residents and faculty of the future — along with nurses, researchers and other health professionals, both women and men — will come into higher education and into the workforce understanding that this behavior is not acceptable and is inconsistent with their goals of helping others."