#MeToo in vet med: Shining a light on sexual harassment and assault

February 13, 2018
Portia Stewart, Editor, Team Channel Director
Portia Stewart, Editor, Team Channel Director

Portia Stewart is a pun-loving editor who spends her days arguing the differences between cats and commas (commas are a pause at the end of a clause, while cats have the claws at the end of the paws). She is a minion to two cats and a dog.

Veterinary professionals open up about their own experiences with unwelcome sexual advances, gender-related power plays-and downright creepiness.

shutterstock.comShame. It coils through her chest and wraps around her throat, creating a chokehold that makes her chest tight and her eyes burn.

Guilt. She didn't want this to happen, but it did-and she couldn't stop it.

Anger. The haunting presence of her oppressor, his taking up rent-free occupancy in her mind.

She is an unwilling participant in secrecy, a condition forced on her by the aggressor who assaulted or harassed her. And now it's time for her-for all of us-to speak up.

Every 98 seconds, someone in the United States is sexually assaulted, according to data from the U.S. Department of Justice. About 12 percent of these assaults occur when the victim is working. And a December 2017 CNBC All-America Survey revealed that about one in five Americans reported experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace.

The #MeToo movement reaches to the core of how these experiences of harassment, assault and discrimination teach women to think about themselves. How they will frame their lives and how they will value themselves and their contributions to work, family and society.

The glittering galas of Hollywood aren't the only places that hide the stank of sexual harassment and assault. While veterinary medicine may boast fewer sequins and Botox-enhanced smiles, your colleagues have spoken out, sharing their own experiences with sexual harassment, assault and discrimination in the workplace-and outside of it. In fact, I think you'd be hard pressed to find a profession untouched by these terrors.

As Hollywood has responded to the actions of its alleged assaulters and harassers, it has helped launch a movement aimed at giving voice to victims-to take the shame out of the experience and transform what was previously taboo into a platform to hold a conversation that can lead to change.

It's an opportunity for reflection and, for a profession in which women outnumber men (2016 AVMA statistics show about 44,000 male veterinarians in the United States and 64,000 female veterinarians), it's a chance to take a leadership position and tackle a problem that's haunted society since time immemorial.

Consider the accounts dvm360 readers shared of their experiences with harassment, assault and discrimination:

I took a job with the USDA-FSIS in a beef slaughter plant a couple years after I graduated from veterinary college. … One of the plant foremen took umbrage with me and would yank on his crotch when I was around him. It culminated with him basically fondling himself early one morning when the inspector I was monitoring was out of eyesight. My supervisors handled it poorly when I complained, and I eventually resigned.

A male doctor at our practice kept his light battery pack in the front of his pants during surgery. When it needed to be changed, he'd ask young female team members to reach into his pocket to change the battery pack. While they were doing so he would pretend they were fondling him and embarrass them. When we filed a complaint with the state department of health about this and other egregious behavior, such as profanity-laced rages, the state regulatory agency had a "boys will be boys" attitude and did not want to hear about this. Fortunately he is gone from the practice.

The male practice owner called me into his office, where I found him sitting in his underwear. He wanted me to change an ace bandage on his lower leg. He said it was appropriate because we have a nurse-doctor relationship.

Sexual harassment, defined

There are two types of sexual harassment: hostile work environment and quid pro quo.

According to the EEOC, "Although the law doesn't prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted)."

Keith Gutstein, JD, of law firm Kaufman Dolowich & Voluck, says federal law looks at severe and pervasive conduct-situations where "the workplace is so permeated with ridicule or insults that it alters the terms and conditions of the employee's job."

The second type of sexual harassment, quid pro quo, is defined as "this for that." "A male supervisor may say, 'Sleep with me and I'll give you a promotion,'" Gutstein says. "Or 'Go on a date with me and I won't fire you.'"

Be aware that your state or city may define laws regarding sexual harassment more extensively or differently.

Victims: out of the shadows

Who can be harassed? Veterinarians. Practice owners. Associates. Practice managers. Technicians. Receptionists. Kennel attendants. Clients. Vendors. Women. Men. Straight people. Gay people. People who live on this planet. People who don't.

Who can be harassers? Veterinarians. Practice owners. Associates. Practice managers. Technicians. Receptionists. Kennel attendants. Clients. Vendors. Women. Men. Straight people. Gay people. People who live on this planet. People who don't.

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), "both the victim and the harasser can be either a woman or a man, and the victim and harasser can be the same sex."

Where does sexual harassment happen? At the front desk. In the exam room and treatment areas. In the pharmacy, the kennel area or the parking lot. At the practice, away from the practice and-for ambulatory and large animal veterinarians-on the client's turf.

Bridget Heilsberg, DVM, is an equine veterinarian, owner of Crown 3 Veterinary Services in Whitesboro, Texas, and president of the Women's Veterinary Leadership Development Initiative (WVLDI). "One of the things I think we tend to overlook is the amount of sexual harassment and discrimination that happens to women veterinarians from their client base," Dr. Heilsberg says. "And we're talking about both the small animal clinical side as well as … ambulatory large animal practice."

The men of the #MeToo movement

While the majority of stories surrounding the #MeToo movement have come from female victims, males have identified themselves as victims as well. In fact, dvm360 received several #MeToo stories from men, highlighting a range of experiences regarding discrimination and harassment:

Several years ago a new female associate veterinarian came up to me at the clinic. She grabbed my gluteus maximus and told me she thought that I was cute. As a married man, I told her not to do it again, but it happened two other times.

-Male practice owner

Sexual discrimination is very common in the workplace. I'm the only male, therefore certain tasks always get passed on to me. They're rarely fun and pleasant.

-Male associate veterinarian

The only time I had to fire a doctor was a female making advances on our divorced surgeon. She made some comments to him and showed up at his house-to pick up a used TV, but she thought it was for more.

-Male practice owner

Dr. Heilsberg says safety on farm calls is a regular discussion for the women in an equine practice Facebook group she's part of. Solutions range from traveling with a canine companion to calling friends, coworkers or loved ones before visiting a new client-even to carrying a firearm for protection.

"I personally not only have a firearm but I also have a German shepherd, and I travel with her to my farm calls," Dr. Heilsberg says. "I feel like it's an additional concern that women have because we have that concern in our everyday lives. Then it gets amplified when we go out on a farm call visit with someone we don't know."

If the idea of an assault during a farm call seems only faintly possible to you, consider this story from a dvm360 reader:

A classmate and friend of mine who also worked at a dairy practice was at a guy's farm one winter, and the guy lassoed her and tied her to the stall divider in his stanchion-type barn. She told me she was counting the layers of clothing she had on (insulated coveralls, jacket, shirt, jeans, long underwear) and how long it might take him to rip them off. She chewed him out when he started laughing at her, and she managed to get untied. She did continue to work on the guy's farm, and he never tried that again with her.



All the feelings

Shame and guilt-these two powerful emotions often lie beneath the dirty layers of sexual harassment.

"The actual experience is sometimes shocking," says Elizabeth Strand, PhD, LCSW, the director of veterinary social work at the University of Tennessee. Dr. Strand points to the stress responses-fight, flight or freeze-to explain: "I think it can cause a freeze response where women don't know what to do because it's so shocking that it's actually happening."

In this author's mind, sexual harassment victims must deal with at least three phases of emotion. The first wave occurs the moment the event is happening-disbelief, shock, denial and fear. The second surge includes internal shame, guilt and lack of self-worth over the secret. The third wave is fear of sharing what happened. Considering this, it's easy to see how victims can become mired in emotion and too paralyzed to act.

"There's a theory of moral development that says women have quite a different moral development than men," Dr. Strand says. "We tend to put relationships first, and if a relationship is not going well, we tend to look inside and say, 'What did I do?' I think because we're wired that way, one of the most challenging emotions that arises is shame and guilt."

However, Dr. Strand continues, coming forward has become a movement, and that helps it feel less scary. "There's a sense of solidarity and comfort knowing that it's OK to talk about it," she says.

For Dr. Heilsberg, the goal is to break through the silence and the taboo nature of the topic.

"One of the most important messages for us as a society and for us as a profession to take out of the #MeToo movement is that we can no longer ignore sexual discrimination, sexual harassment and sexual assault in the workplace," she says. "It's not something we can sweep under the rug anymore and ignore politely. … We're starting to eliminate that taboo. Once society as a whole stops looking at something as a taboo subject, that's when we can really address it. Because you can't address something if you can't talk about it."

Employer quick guide

As a medical professional, you know it's better to prevent than to treat. Keith Gutstein, JD, of Kaufman Dolowich & Voluck, offers this checklist to help prevent sexual harassment issues in your practice.

> Make sure your veterinary practice maintains an updated policy stating that discrimination and harassment are prohibited.

> Make sure there is a clear and easy-to-use complaint procedure, making it simple for someone to file an internal complaint if needed.

> Make sure the practice has a policy against retaliation.

> Make sure investigations are conducted promptly and thoroughly when a complaint is made and that the practice maintains confidentiality to the extent possible.

> Make sure the complaint procedure involves one or more alternative receivers of complaints.

> Make sure the whole veterinary team undergoes sexual harassment training.

When the culture is to blame

The veterinary work environment plays a significant role in how discrimination and harassment play out. For example, say conversations amongst your coworkers in a hospital tend to turn a little blue. Everyone seems OK with the tone-until a new person joins the team. She doesn't feel comfortable with the raunchiness. You might be inclined to tell the new employee, "Lighten up! We're just having fun." But Keith Gutstein, JD, a partner at Kaufman Dolowich & Voluck in Woodbury, New York, who handles labor and employment issues, advises against this stance.

In fact, Gutstein confesses that his law practice employees tend to call him the "morality police." "When people talk around the office, the old water cooler or locker room talk, when I walk around, that tends to stop," he says. "People should know that it's unacceptable at work. … If somebody else overhears you, it may make them uncomfortable."

Dr. Strand concurs, adding that women can play a powerful role by supporting each other: "Solidarity among women is really important," she says. Even if certain conduct doesn't bother you, she continues, it's worthwhile to make sure your fellow coworkers are also comfortable with the tone and culture.

Business owner liability

If you're a practice owner, take note. You have a duty to create a safe working environment for employees.

"It is extremely, extremely important for employers to have a sexual harassment/discrimination policy-not just articulating that this conduct is inappropriate and unacceptable, but also articulating what should be done if someone feels they are the victim of discrimination or harassment," Gutstein says.

Next, he says, you should have a clear procedure that identifies who to contact if someone believes they are the victim of harassment-and who to contact after that. (See "How to report sexual harassment.")

"I like to have a secondary person in the policy to receive complaints," Gutstein says. "If the alleged harasser is the person who's supposed to get the complaints, the employee's not going to complain."

Other important guidelines? Make sure your policy makes it easy to report a complaint, and be sure it outlines a policy against retaliation. "You also want to make sure your employees and supervisors are trained, so if someone does make a complaint they know how to deal with it," Gutstein says.

Once you receive a complaint, Gutstein says, it's a good idea to contact an attorney with expertise in sexual harassment prevention and training and ask how to proceed.

"The most important thing is to act and not ignore," Gutstein says. "You do want to take the complaints seriously. You do not want to ignore or delay response. You may need to separate the employee and the supervisor or the two employees. You do want to investigate thoroughly. You do want to, at the end of the investigation, take prompt remedial steps."

These steps may include additional training for your team, serving a warning for offensive conduct, recirculating your policies, or firing the alleged harasser, depending on the circumstances and severity of the events.

Resist retaliation

As an employer or manager, how you respond to a harassment or discrimination claim is critical. A poor response can look like retaliation-which could set you up for even more legal problems.

I worked for a male veterinarian who would come up behind me when I was standing at the pharmacy workstation and press up against me while I was working. He would also lean forward and whisper into my ear. He was the owner of the practice, and he did this continually. I told him it made me uncomfortable and asked him to stop doing it. He told me to "loosen up" and said he was "just trying to have a little fun." I was fired by the office manager and another veterinarian in the practice. I had already started my own job search, but I could not help feeling that I was fired because, unlike some of my coworkers, I didn't play along with it.

So what does retaliation look like? Obviously getting fired is one form, Gutstein says. But retaliation can also involve demotion, cutting hours, giving unfavorable work assignments, passing someone over for a promotion, assigning all the difficult clients to one employee, or forcing someone to succumb to inappropriate advances.

"It can take a variety of forms. It's going to be something that has a chilling effect on the employee," Gutstein says. "Other employees are going to see that as a message: 'If you complain, this is what's going to happen to you.'"

The thing about retaliation, Gutstein says, is that retaliation against a complaint becomes a separate issue-something you can face a lawsuit for, regardless of whether the harassment actually occurred.

"If somebody complains on a Monday and they're fired on Wednesday, that's pretty good timing for a retaliation claim," Gutstein says. "You can sue for retaliation on its own, even without the underlying discrimination or harassment. As long as you have a good-faith belief and you complain, if you're retaliated against, you can sue."


What men can do

It can feel like an awkward time to be a man. And it's easy to wonder what behavior is appropriate and what crosses the line. Dr. Heilsberg says you can find the perfect guideline for how to support women in leadership by turning to the advice of Douglas Aspros, DVM. As the treasurer for WVLDI, Dr. Aspros speaks regularly on his role as a male ally.

"Male leaders are incredibly important, and Doug Aspros has a really powerful presentation on this," Dr. Heilsberg says. Her favorite line from his lecture to fellow men? "Don't be creepy."

"I think a lot of men in leadership positions don't realize how creepy they can be perceived to be," Dr. Heilsberg says. "Don't make inappropriate comments, and make sure you are staying at all times really professional."

Dr. Heilsberg offers these examples:

• The creepy greeting: A male colleague, meeting a female colleague, immediately comments on how good the woman looks in her clothing.

• The noncreepy greeting: A male colleague, meeting a female colleague, immediately comments on how pleased he is to meet her and much he's looking forward to working with her.

"Take a good look at the person in front of you, and if you wouldn't say it to a male colleague, don't say it to a female colleague," she says.

When I was in my 30s I worked at a small animal practice in a small town. One day the male practice owner (a veterinarian) was talking to a male veterinarian that also worked with us and they were comparing the female veterinarians at the practice to cattle. They joked that I looked more like a beef cow than a dairy cow (I assume due to the size of my udders, err breasts?). I did not work at that practice much longer and am now a practice owner. I figured if this insensitive clod could do it, how hard could it be?

Dr. Strand says men can also be allies in the #MeToo movement by holding each other accountable: "When men allies see their buddies behaving in a way that's out of line in the workplace or demeaning to their female colleagues, they need to have the courage to say, 'Hey man. I like you, dude, cool to work with you, but let's raise the bar here a little bit.' "

Male allies can also give women opportunities in meetings, offer women credit for the ideas they've had, put women in leadership positions and support those who are already there, Dr. Strand says-"especially in the veterinary profession, which has a large number of women in it."

Take the power back

Sexual harassment, discrimination and assault all come down to power. And at the core of #MeToo women are taking power back. That's the true beauty of #MeToo-erasing the shame and releasing the secrets we hold in silence.

Portia Stewart is team channel director for dvm360.com, the editor of Firstline and the "she" at the beginning of this story. Read her #MeToo moment here. Do you have a #MeToo moment to share? Email dvmnews@ubm.com.