How Women Pharmacists Sparked a National Conversation around Sexual Harassment
In 2017 the #MeToo Movement took the world of Hollywood by storm as dozens of women came forward with their experiences with sexual harassment. These stories created a domino effect in other industries as more women began to come forward, and the world began to see what women already knew: sexual harassment was a universal problem. As other industries worked on dealing with these "revelations," the field of pharmacy remained quiet.
It stayed this way until August 2020 when Dr. Rebecca Smith, of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, came forward via Twitter to call out the pharmacy community for continuing to support pharmacists who have a past with sexual harassment. These claims were significantly bolstered when Dr. Brittany Bissell, critical care pharmacist at UK Health Care and University of Kentucky College of Pharmacy (UKCOP) faculty, challenged the pharmacy community to do better when holding its peers accountable.
Coming forward about sexual harassment experiences isn't a cut-and-dry process. When people decide to come forward, they run the risk of suffering social and professional consequences. This fear of retaliation is reinforced by workplace power differentials that work to maintain the status quo.
"You have to consider a lot of things before outing someone for sexual harassment,” Bissell said. “You run the risk of the person using this against you at a local level, but also if the person has a large national presence, they can keep you out of organizations or involvement that can hurt you professionally.”
However, once Bissell realized that the situation impacted others and not only herself, she decided it was time to confront the problem head-on.
"It wasn't until I heard that some of these interactions that I had previously gone through had occurred to a student,” Bissell said. “The student was hesitant to come forward because they'd heard that I had gone through this harassment and continued a professional relationship with the harasser. That was a turning point for me. It was then that I realized that if myself and others do not take action, then the situation would only continue."
Bissell and Smith's efforts opened the floodgates for women to have their voices heard. As the voices of those impacted by sexual harassment reached a fever pitch, people began to come out in support of Bissell and her colleagues. One of those voices was Dr. Jimmi Hatton Kolpek, president of the American College of Clinical Pharmacy (ACCP).
“The courage, determination, and commitment demonstrated by Dr. Bissell and her colleagues are transforming professional organization’s policies, procedures, and processes,” Hatton Kolpek said.”Embracing diversity, addressing harassment, and uniting to end discrimination will strengthen the future of our profession. I couldn’t be more grateful for her leadership and the opportunity to support these voices throughout my service as President of ACCP.”
Dr. Jackie Johnston from the Rutgers Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy and Stephanie Sibickly from Northeastern University School of Pharmacy were among the women who told their stories and made the push for accountability. These stories prompted a much broader conversation about how our culture has and continues to enable predatory behavior by men.
When men exhibit inappropriate behavior towards women, it is frequently explained away and justified as "boys being boys" or "that’s just the way it is." Still, for many, the way sexual harassment has been normalized is an indicator of an overarching cultural issue that presents itself across the board regardless of industry.
"Reflecting on my own experiences, being sexually harassed initially didn't raise any red flags for me,” Bissell shared. “As a woman in this country, I think we've become desensitized to off-handed and inappropriate remarks, and it has become something we just expect."
The way sexual harassment is ingrained in our culture can lead women to believe that they have no other option but to endure it. This sort of thinking requires women to take on additional emotional labor to deal with regular workplace stressors on top of harassment.
"All women want to do is come to work, do their job, and be good at it. I want to spend my time focusing on my patients and my students but dealing with these kinds of situations requires me to take time out of the day to talk about the harasser," Bissell said. "I know lots of strong women that put up with it because they refuse to let the harasser win. The second that we start dedicating time to our harasser, we are letting them take up more of our time and have a presence in our lives that they don't deserve."
The process for reporting harassment is long and strenuous, especially for the victim. The process is often cyclical, requiring the victim to go through several different channels and relive their experience repeatedly. Many times, their effort results in no meaningful change or consequences.
“The process can be incredibly frustrating,” Bissell said. “You almost need to make criminal complaints and have the worst of the worst happen to you before many organizations think to look.”
While systemic change can be a longer process, Bissell said there are simple changes people can make to hold themselves and others accountable, thus creating a safer space for everyone.
"We need a lot more people to be willing to have the difficult conversations and be willing to put in the work to make these changes,” Bissell added. “As more and more women come forward, I don't think many people are completely shocked by what's been going on. People will hear rumors about something that happened, but we need to start encouraging those people to follow up.”
Bissell and her colleagues are working hard to help usher in a new era of pharmacy, one where sexual harassment is not the norm, and people can come to work without taking on any additional emotional stress. While hopeful, Bissell acknowledges they have a long way to go.
"The phrase #MeToo was started by Tarana Burke, a Black woman, back in 2006 for women of color to acknowledge and support one another with their experiences with sexual abuse,” Bissell said. “Keeping that in mind, I think we must take an intersectional approach to these issues and acknowledge how people's identities will shape the way they feel and how they respond to these interactions. So taking into consideration people's gender identity, sexuality and culture will help us to address harassment on a much broader scale."
Thus far, Bissell's efforts have resulted in statements from the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists, the American College of Clinical Pharmacy, and the American Pharmacists Association. Still, she doesn't plan on stopping there. Bissell's petition to these organizations for better protections for female students has garnered over three thousand signatures and counting. The efforts of Bissell and other women like her are reshaping the way we look at the pharmaceutical education industry and have further implications for workplaces in general.
Anyone affected by sexual assault, whether it happened to you or someone you care about, can find support on the National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-HOPE (4673). You can also visit online.rainn.org to receive support via confidential online chat.
University of Kentucky students can find on-campus support at the Violence Intervention and Prevention (VIP) Center by visiting their site at: https://www.uky.edu/vipcenter/. An incident or incidents of bias, hate, bigotry and/or identity-based violence can be reported through UK’s Bias Incident Report Form.