Me too in medicine: time for a women’s court

In an environment where at least one in every two female clinicians has experienced some kind of sexual harassment during her working life, developing educational programs to change the culture don’t and won’t work. There just isn’t enough money or time or will. Besides, too much time and money continue to be wasted in exposing these toxic practices and too little to combat them.

We now have good evidence that the only effective remedy is financial.  Research suggests that the Athena SWAN initiative, which was designed to include a financial incentive to organizations increasing the participation of women in senior positions in research, may not have happened without the link to research funding. Funding is a  powerful motivation for institutional leaders.

It is time for a women’s court.

Unfortunately, there is never going to be enough institutional money to rectify such a highly prevalent problem. Also, relying on an institutional solution does not address the problems created at an individual level.  Both harassers and their victims need to have their say and be judged in an environment of their peers.

A new strategy has to be found.  Specialized courts in some countries focus on business or drugs, mental health or veterans. It is time for a specialized court by women and for women to address harassment in the workplace.

Women who have been harassed deserve to have their evidence be heard and, similarly, accused harassers should have the opportunity to refute the allegations or plead guilty, based on evidence. Individual recompense should be awarded from harassers and the institutions that have supported these toxic practices. Repeat offenders should be subject to increasingly higher penalties. Me too tribunals and courts need to be established  as a matter of urgency.

Recompense can go some way to ameliorating the severe consequences experienced by women, especially the non-clinical ones such as work withdrawal, over-performance, and minimizing or normalizing incidents. Shame and financial punishment also are likely to affect the behaviour of existing and would-be harassers.  That is why the reparations for proven harassment need to be publicly visible. Proven harassers should be punished by published sanction letters and warnings, restrictions on the funds they control, temporary salary reduction (to that of their female colleagues at least), monetary restitution, denial of tenure and/or emeritus status and forced administrative leave.

Athena SWAN has shown that carrots work to improve conditions for women in the sciences.  Unfortunately, where harassment is concerned, sticks might prove more effective.

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