by a Blog Reader

recent article in the journal Ethics, Medicine and Public Health examined the extent to which medical students experience sexual inequality and harassment during their five years at the University of Malta’s Doctor of Medicine and Surgery programme. Elizabeth Grech, Anneka Pace, Tamara Attard, and Sarah Cuschieri set up an online survey and asked 711 students to reply to the questions. Over 14% of the students complied. Twice as many women as men replied to the survey, possibly because about two thirds of the students in medicine are women.

Female students were more likely to complain about inequality and harassment although only two of them agreed with the statement that they had been asked for sexual services. Among respondents, the most common problem reported was being ignored because of their gender. Twenty four percent of the men felt that women were treated better than them. Forty four percent of the women said that it was men who were treated better. Thirty percent of men felt that they were disrespected because they were men while 39% of the women felt that they were disrespected because they were women. Percentagewise among the two groups of respondents, men and women were about just as likely to feel ridiculed. The same applied to being at the receiving end of condescending comments and being singled out as an object of sexual interest.

However, women were much more likely to mention being denied rightful help; receiving unwelcomed comments about their clothes or appearance; experiencing intrusive touch; and subjected to sexually offensive jokes.

The authors go to great length in criticizing the patriarchy but seem unable to explain why men also complain about harassment and inequality. It looks like the authors did their literature research from a feminist perspective before they collected the survey responses and were caught short when a significant number of men claimed to be victims as well. The authors repeatedly refer to studies about female victimhood but have nothing to tell us in particular about male victimhood.

The responses indicate that male medical doctors are the main culprits, especially during clinical practice. Yet, a number of students, including female students, were also reported as treating fellow students unfairly due to gender. 

The collected data doesn’t support the authors’ singling out of the patriarchy as the root cause of abuse. The authors write that medicine is patriarchal because most medical knowledge “revolves around men and their health.” But this fails to explain power abuse leading to inequality and harassment of students. Power abuse is influenced by multiple factors including Maltese cultural values, societal norms, institutional structures and individual behaviours. Patriarchal systems can contribute to power abuse too by reinforcing gender-based hierarchies but with so many female students in medicine, a matriarchal system is on the horizon. However, too many Carmen Ciantars don’tnecessarily mean better days ahead for Maltese medicine.

I commend the authors for investing their time and energy in exploring how the medical school can be more amenable for equal opportunities. No study is ever without its limitations, but this doesn’t mean that we should wait for the elusive perfect study that will never materialize. One frustrating thing that the student respondents pointed out is that they see no purpose in reporting the culprits to the administration. Hence life goes on with all its warps. This is unfortunate. In a healthcare system where $400,000,000 million can disappear in thin air, culprits can probably get away with a little bit more than student harassment as things stand. Nonetheless, it shouldn’t be so, and it cannot remain so.


  1. If two thirds of the medical students are female than patriarchy in the sector will soon vanish.

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