Women make up about half of medical students and much more as professionals, but in a survey conducted with distinguished physicians, almost a third of the female participants stated that they have experienced sexual harassment.

The study was conducted among a 1,000 high-achieving physician-scientists of both sexes, who had received a career development award between 2006 to 2009 from the National Institutes of Health.

The respondents were given a number of questions pertaining to career experiences, gender bias, gender advantages and sexual harassment. The results showed that 70 per cent of women report that they have experienced gender bias, while 30 per cent of women reported that they have experienced sexual harassment in their professional careers.

"This is a sobering reminder that our society has a long way to go before we achieve gender equity," said study author Reshma Jagsi, who is also Deputy Chair of Radiation Oncology at the University of Michigan Medical School. “The perception among many of us is that this type of behaviour is a thing of the past. So it's sobering to see quite how many relatively young women in this sample reported experiences with harassment and discrimination."

Sexual harassment is defined as bullying or coercing of a sexual nature, often offering promises of unwelcome and inappropriate rewards in exchange for sexual favours. It is unlawful to harass a person because of their sex, but it happens and very few people report it.

It also comprises a range of actions from mild transgressions to ultimately, sexual abuse. Sexual harassment does not involve women alone; men have also been subjected to it. The study has shown that 4 per cent of the male respondents have suffered sexual harassment from former superiors.

"We need to recognise the degree to which sexual harassment and gender inequality continue to be an issue in academic medicine," Jagsi said. "Women who experience these types of harassment may be less likely to report these incidents if they feel they are unique and aberrational. Our data shows this is not an unusual situation and reflects a larger societal problem."

Jagsi also says that this is a wake-up call, seeing how young women continue to get harassed. Her only interest is to empower victims to report, and come out to help end the struggle. MIMS