I am about to start on my medical clerkships. Come January, I will be transitioning out of the classroom and onto the wards where I will begin engaging with direct patient interaction. I am so excited for this next step in my medical career yet I am also terrified. So far in my education and professional career I have not experienced overt sexual harassment. Yes, I get the odd comment from standardized patients that I am “too friendly, too smiley” and give off a general “uneducated vibe despite very good explanations of medical processes” (side note, I am a friendly blonde woman which must mean that I am unprofessional simply by existing). Yes, I have had undergraduate peers comment on my “aggressive” and “bitchy” personality because I am a leader in the classroom and not afraid to speak my mind. Yes, I have found it very difficult to obtain male mentors although the female mentors in my life have been profound, enriching, kind, competent amazing women who have gotten me to where I am. But, I have not experienced what these articles are alleging, direct threats of sexual violence.
I am nervous for clerkships because for the first time in medical school, my performance and grades will not be judged based on objective metrics like test scores but rather on subjective opinions of my clinical skills based on evaluations by my preceptor attendings and residents. On one hand, this is great news! I am not the typical math-y, science-y medical student. Before this year, I had never even done research. I got into medicine because I want to form relationships with my patients and now I will finally be evaluated on my ability to do. On the other hand, this also means that my performance now depends upon on how “likeable” I am to my superiors which also leaves more rooms for abuse and harassment. This isn’t just a problem at NYU, it’s a pervasive challenge for all medical students entering clerkships that they are limited in their ability to react to and discuss inappropriate behavior by superiors. Unfortunately, I’ve heard stories from medical students both in the news and personally who have been asked out repeatedly by their residents and/or received degrading comments from superiors regarding women, people of color generally and LGBTQ folks. I’ve heard that dating amongst residents (our direct superiors) and medical students is common on clerkships- a disturbing fact given the fact that residents are able to make comments on our end-of-clerkships grades. I am hoping that I will not have these experiences on clerkships but I am also not naïve.
Recently my mother came to visit me. While we were grabbing dinner we started chatting about the recent sexual abuse and harassment allegations in the news. I asked her if she’d ever experienced sexual harassment. At first, she said “No” but the paused and asked “Does this count?” She began to tell me a story about architect in his late thirties teaching in an exchange program in NYC during her junior year (when she was 20) who gave her weird vibes. She couldn’t exactly describe what was off but she just knew it was wrong and requested to switch teachers. At the end of the year, this teacher sent her a letter relating his feelings for her, which she promptly tore up. The next year, back at her college in Ohio, she saw him walking the hallways, possibly to recruit future students for the program and possibly to see her. When she saw him, she ran in the opposite direction and described her feeling not as fearful but rather as being creeped out. She kept this story inside of her for a long time. She actually had never told me that story before until I was 25 years old, when such challenges might face me. I wonder if my experiences will be different than hers and yet I am afraid that they might not be.