By April Jasper, OD, FAAO, and Katie Gilbert-Spear, OD, MPH
A recent Women In Optometry® Pop-up Poll found that more than half of the respondents said that they’ve been the subject of sexual harassment by a patient, and more than one-in-four said that they have the subject of sexual harassment by a colleague in the profession. Even larger percentages feel that they’ve the subject of gender bias by a colleague or a patient.
As leaders in their offices, optometrists should understand that a workplace where workers feel harassed, intimidated or belittled is not a good place to be. Indeed, one woman OD said that she left her place of employment after experiencing sexual harassment there.
We don’t know how to solve the issue of sexual harassment and gender bias; clearly, it’s a hot topic these days. But we do believe that this is an important conversation to have. The spectrum is huge. It can range from a dismissive remark to aggressively unwanted sexual behavior. There is obviously no one size fits all situation, and office policies shouldn’t be made so strict that they stifle a trusting or fun atmosphere. Above all, work should be a place where people enjoy spending their days.
Incidentally, the survey found that male ODs said they, too, have been sexually harassed by patients, and even some by their professional colleagues.
So what can doctors do? One step is to let the entire team know that harassment is not acceptable behavior. If there’s one thing that the fallout from the Harvey Weinstein experience has shown is that a lot of people kept their mouths shut for a very long time. Encourage a more discussion. One respondent to the poll said that when she was an optician, she told her boss (a male OD) about a patient who harassed her and the boss promptly stepped in. He spoke to the patient and made sure that when the patient did return to the office, he personally managed all the interaction.
Include conversations about personal safety in your overall team meetings. Doctors should never have to feel unsafe or threatened in the exam room—although we realize that’s a “perfect world” scenario. But just as your office considers safety policies—such as running deposits to the bank, confronting a shoplifter, dark parking lots—include a discussion about how to handle sexual harassment. Team members will typically come quickly to support an employee who is being berated by a patient, for example, but everyone can hear that. A grope is more typically done in secret, but that shouldn’t mean that the person on the receiving end needs to suffer alone or in shame.
Make sure your staff knows that you’ll stand up for them.