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AAMC: No tolerance for sexual harassment in academic medicine

In a call to action, Dean Flotte and colleagues call for cultural change in academic medical institutions

By Megan Bard

UMass Medical School Communications

November 14, 2017
  Terence R. Flotte, MD

Terence R. Flotte, MD

More must be done to prevent sexual harassment in academic medicine, according to a newly published call to action in Academic Medicine co-authored by Dean Terence R. Flotte.

Members of the Association of American Medical College’s Group on Women in Medicine and Science, which includes Dean Flotte and colleagues from 14 academic medical institutions, call for the end of “locker room” talk being invoked as an excuse for sexual misconduct and the establishment of an environment in which women, from student to professor, are safe to pursue their dreams.

“We must work at the level of each institution to make it safe for individuals to come forward, to provide training for victims and for bystanders, and to abolish ‘locker room’ talk that is demeaning to women,” wrote Flotte, the Celia and Isaac Haidak Professor of Medical Education, executive deputy chancellor, provost and dean of the School of Medicine and senior author on the article.

A 1995 study of women in medicine reported that 52 percent surveyed said they had been sexually harassed. A more recent survey of postdocs and junior faculty at the beginning of their careers found that 30 percent of women had experienced sexual harassment. In 2016, an AAMC survey of graduating students showed that 3.8 percent of students experienced unwanted sexual advances and 12.9 percent had been subjected to offensive sexist remarks or names. Of those, only 20 percent reported the incidents or behavior to their institution.

According to the article, a primary reason for lack of reporting is the fear of retaliation; 27 percent of those students who had not reported serious behaviors, including sexual harassment, cited fear of reprisal as a reason that they remained silent.

The power differential between students, trainees, postdocs and junior faculty, and senior faculty and those in charge “leads to a real and justified fear or retaliation that might undermine many years of work and might threaten careers.”

“Our ability to change the culture is hampered by fear of reporting episodes of harassment,” Flotte and colleagues wrote.

In the paper, It is Time for Zero Tolerance for Sexual Harassment in Academic Medicine, the group references efforts by various scientific societies to address the issue and change the climate for women. The group also cautions against sacrificing a safe culture for money and to address all claims through a due process so as to not create a system in which the innocent can be accused.

“We must fully investigate reports and document patterns of behavior, while simultaneously changing the culture to prevent such offenses in the future,” they wrote.

As first steps toward reaching the goal, the group recommends:

    • Encourage victims to come forward without fear of retaliation from their harasser;
    • Institute mandatory training;
    • Sanction and monitor, and in some cases dismiss, those who are found to have committed sexual harassment;
    • Create an environment where “locker room” talk is not accepted;
    • Promulgate and enforce policies banning retaliation in all professional societies; and
    • Commence research into the prevalence and severity of sexual harassment in academic medicine.