Anita Hill speaks out

Sexual harassment affects us all, says the acclaimed advocate for women’s rights and racial justice. She talked to AAMCNews about the #MeToo movement, gender and racial inequities in the sciences, and more.
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On Thursday, September 27, psychologist Christine Blasey Ford, PhD, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about sexual misconduct by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. The proceedings invoked memories of the 1991 confirmation hearings of then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, who also faced accusations of sexual harassment by law professor Anita Hill. During those hearings, Hill was asked to repeat details of her allegations many times over and was largely dismissed; two days after her testimony, Thomas was confirmed by a vote of 52 to 48. 

In the lead up to the hearings, Hill urged the Senate Judiciary Committee to do a better job this time around. “A fair, neutral, and well-thought-out course is the only way to approach Dr. Blasey and Judge Kavanaugh’s forthcoming testimony,” she wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times.

Hill, who last year was tapped to serve as the founding chair of the Commission on Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality in the Workplace, is scheduled to speak at Learn Serve Lead 2018: The AAMC Annual Meeting on Nov. 5, 2018, in Austin, Texas.

She recently spoke with AAMCNews about sexual harassment, black men in medicine, and the need to create institutional change “that fosters a culture of respect and human dignity.”

No field is immune to sexual harassment, medicine included. What advice would you give medical professionals who experience harassment?

One problem is we think we can tell victims what to do, when the real issue is the structures, culture, and climate that accepts this kind of behavior. Institutional complaint processes often lack transparency. And many people are not in a position, even if they raise a claim, to change the climate and culture that accepts abuse — so their complaints are dismissed. The message really has to be to the people in charge of these institutions — hospitals, funding sources, and professional organizations like yours — that sexual harassment is not tolerated, and serious consequences accrue when it occurs.

What we’re talking about are systems. Organizations within the sciences need to really hold themselves and others accountable. Everyone has to be on the same page to say this is a serious problem within our industry, and we all need to take it on. We have to look at this as a systemic problem.

You’ve seen attitudes toward sexual harassment change over time. How do you anticipate these attitudes further evolving?

I see social expectations evolving. Recent surveys have shown more people now are less concerned about harassers’ careers than they are about protecting victims. That’s the switch.

The changes in public attitudes lead to more people being open to talking about their experiences. And even more, we’ve got a solid body of research on the costs of harassment, on how it impacts victims, people who witness it, and organizations. It’s now time to put that evidence into action in our workplaces, and people in science ought to be at the forefront of that because, like the research on sexual harassment, your work is based on evidence. There is an alignment of methods and purpose.

But there are additional things we still need to do. Much more work needs to be done on how identity factors, in addition to gender, play into experiences of sexual harassment. We need more research on its impact on women of color and LGBTQ+ populations, how they’re experiencing sexual harassment, and how we react to claims when the target of harassment is a member of these groups.

You have said that the growing number of women in STEM has not resulted in gender parity. What can medical schools and teaching hospitals do to create a more diverse, inclusive, and respectful environment?

Women are not getting paid the same as men, are not being supported and mentored the same, and are not being recognized with honors the same. Because women are less likely to study with top scientists, for example, they aren’t put on the tracks necessary to get into top positions. In addition to admitting women into programs, we need to address how women, including women of color, are progressing through their careers starting with undergraduate and graduate schools, probably all the way up to their retirement. It’s about all the hurdles they have that really seem to point to bias as the biggest challenge. The same can be said for men of color.

A 2012 study from Yale indicates that whether you’re talking to a male or female leader, the person is less likely to mentor female applicants and less likely to offer them jobs, even though their credentials are the same as men's. One of the things we need to think about is how do we treat women, how do we mentor, how do we assess their work in a way that doesn’t allow our own unconscious biases to creep in.

Along with gender inequality, there are racial disparities in medicine. A 2015 AAMC report found there were fewer black men in medical schools in 2014 than in 1978. What is the impact of this on society?

There are gender-based pipeline challenges and there are race-based pipeline challenges. The evidence is that students of color experience limited access to science and math and that it starts at a much earlier point in their education than white students.  

My friend Evelynn Hammonds from Harvard, who has done some transformative work in this area, believes that the science gap when it comes to women and minorities is one of the biggest civil rights issues of the 21st century. It has implications, of course, for medicine, but it also has implications in science and technology, in the world, and for quality of life across the board. I think the medical community has a special role to play in bringing that message home.

[Women and minorities] don’t participate equally in science either as consumers or producers, and that has personal, economic, and physical consequences. You mention the fact that African American men are not gaining in numbers in medicine — that’s not going to solve itself. In fact, it can be self-perpetuating. But we have more tools now, we have more people talking about the problem of underrepresentation, and I don’t think there’s a better time for us to address it.