Since the rise of the #MeToo movement, Mikiba W. Morehead has seen an increase in the number of Baylor College of Medicine students and employees sharing survivor stories about sexual abuse and harassment.
“We have seen a small uptick in individuals who want to share their stories and their experiences from multiple years ago, and they are attributing it directly to the #MeToo movement,” said Morehead, the Title IX and student disability coordinator at Baylor’s Office of Institutional Diversity, Inclusion & Equity. “We know from research and as practitioners that the more you talk about a topic, then the more it’s demystified, the less taboo it seems, the more people become comfortable with speaking up.”
Last October, when major figures in entertainment, news and politics started to be exposed as sexual predators who used their positions of power to victimize women and men, #MeToo became a rallying cry on social media—with survivors posting personal and intimate anecdotes alongside the hashtag. The movement gave voice to topics usually consigned to whispers.
In the Texas Medical Center, many institutions recognize the importance of this movement for empowering employees, students and patients.
Catherine Horn, Ph.D., executive director of the Institute for Educational Policy Research and Evaluation at the University of Houston, said the #MeToo movement is rekindling important conversations on campuses and in workplaces.
“It’s giving us permission to speak up and speak out and really engage in thoughtful dialogue and conversation,” said Horn, a professor and chair of the Educational Leadership and Policy Studies department. “One of the things that we’ve been talking a lot about at the University of Houston is … how a culture of diverse dialogue is incredibly important to us and to our mission, and this is a moment that both reminds us of that and essentially emboldens us to continue down that path.”
It’s an important distinction—that this dialogue is not a result of the movement but rather fortified by it. Baylor and the University of Houston already have robust policies in place regarding sexual harassment and discrimination—be it sex-based, gender-based, identity-based or orientation-based.
“Are we making any changes in response to the #MeToo movement? The answer is ‘No,’” Morehead said. “We’ve got solid things in place that we’ve been building and framing our conversation around for the past three years … We are making sure that we continue to have open conversations about it, that it’s not a one-time snippet that’s at our student orientation, but that it’s constant in our culture and our landscape from your first day as a new student or a new employee, all the way to the time that you leave our community or retire.”
Similarly, Rice University has spent the past few years bulking up programs for survivors of sexual abuse and harassment.
“While we always are alert to ways to improve our programs on preventing sexual misconduct, we have not made any policy changes in reaction to the #MeToo movement,” B.J. Almond, senior director of news and media relations at Rice, said in a statement. “Over the past five years or so, Rice has implemented and enhanced programs intended to prevent sexual misconduct and provide support and services to survivors. We do plan to review our policy and procedures on sexual harassment this semester as part of our updates of university policies.”
Memorial Hermann offers a 24/7 hotline and a centralized employee relations department that gives employees a way to anonymously and confidentially report any concerns or policy violations.
“We recognize that it takes constant vigilance and proactive measures to prevent harassment, discrimination and misconduct, which is why we consistently review our existing policies and procedures while proactively discussing new ideas for safeguards that allow us to continue fulfilling our promise to protect patients, employees and physicians,” Lori Knowles, senior vice president and chief human resources officer at Memorial Hermann, said in a statement.
Rola El-Serag, M.D., medical director of the Women Veterans Health Program at the Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center Houston, has been working for years to cultivate a culture at the VA that provides privacy, dignity and security to women veterans. The #MeToo movement is timely, she said.
“We have a very unique, very sensitive population of women veterans here, so we have to ensure that they come and receive health care in a place that they feel secure and safe,” El-Serag said. “Our female veterans already have a high rate of sexual trauma—23 percent is what’s reported, which is probably a gross underestimate—and so it’s challenging because we’re talking about a culture change. And culture change is extremely hard anywhere, especially in the military.”
El-Serag stressed the importance of a safe environment, citing studies that suggest harassment is associated with an increase in the number of no-shows to medical appointments.
“One event—it could be the smallest of things that could happen to them—could keep a woman veteran away from the VA for another year or two for critical care they really need,” she said. “We know that the implications of this harassment are very significant in terms of their overall wellness and their health care.”
The VA built a Women’s Health Center on its Houston campus and El-Serag is also heading up an “End Harassment” campaign, which focuses on accountability and training for all individuals associated with the VA—veterans, law enforcement, employees and staff.
“In the past, some of our complaints have come from frustration from patients that staff hasn’t acted on their behalf,” El-Serag said. “I think, ultimately, the most effective technique is accountability. If we follow through when that type of behavior is witnessed, then we stand up and let our veterans or whoever is doing the harassing know that this is not going to be tolerated. I think that is going to be the best way to spread the word and make people aware that this is not acceptable. Women veterans need to feel like we understand that this is a threat to them and that we are doing something about it.”
Baylor’s training curriculum also addresses what to do as a bystander who witnesses harassment.
“You’ve got a social responsibility when it comes to speaking up or providing resources, much like if someone had a heart attack on the sidewalk and you’re CPR certified. We’d want you to act,” Morehead said.
Special training around sexual harassment helps propel an organization’s ethos forward, El-Serag said.
“It’s not intuitive how to deal with these situations,” she said. “A lot of people will stay out of these situations just because they really simply don’t know what to do.”
El-Serag hopes her “End Harassment” campaign will help female veterans feel more comfortable reporting instances of sexual harassment and abuse.
“What we hope is that as a result of this campaign, we actually see an increase in the number of complaints at first, not a decrease. It may seem like, ‘Wow, why is this happening more and more?’ But the truth is that it’s always been happening, we just need to create an atmosphere where women feel safe to come forward about it.”
In the Texas Medical Center and beyond, giving survivors a voice and a safe space to use it helps ensure lasting change.
“Even as we’re reminded that the kinds of issues that underlie the #MeToo movement are unfortunately ever-present, and are in many ways challenges of multiple generations,” Horn said, “we also understand that we have these opportunities to change the narrative and change the direction.”