Purpose: The purpose of this study was to determine if dental hygienists in the Commonwealth of Virginia experienced sexual harassment while employed in oral health care settings. Other interests were to determine if dental hygienists experienced sexual harassment, to what extent they felt professionally prepared to respond to unwanted sexual behaviors; did they perceive sexual harassment as a problem in the oral health care environment; and was attrition from their employment associated with sexual harassment.
Methods: A questionnaire, Sexual Harassment in the Dental Hygiene Profession, designed by the author, was used in this research. A list of currently licensed and registered dental hygienists was obtained from the Virginia Board of Dental Examiners and the questionnaire was sent to 540 randomly selected registered Virginia dental hygienists. Two weeks after the initial mailing, a second questionnaire was sent to non-respondents. The survey elicited data on experience, management, and personal opinions relative to sexual harassment, as well as demographic information. Results were analyzed using frequencies, percentages, and the chi-square test of association.
Results: Two hundred eighty-five surveys (53%) were returned and useable. Findings revealed that 54% of the responding dental hygienists experienced sexual harassment. Of these, 50% experienced sexual harassment four or more years ago, 23% one to three years ago and 28% within the last year; these categories were mutually exclusive. The perpetrators of the harassment were reported to be either male dentists (73%) or male clients (45%). Less than 10% reported being harassed by women. While 70% of the sexually harassed respondents indicated that filing formal complaints was an effective strategy for managing sexual harassment, less than 1% actually did so. Of all dental hygienists (harassed or not), 90% did not receive training in their dental education to manage sexual harassment, and 85% would like the American Dental Hygienists' Association to develop model guidelines and policies. Demographic characteristics were typical of practicing dental hygienists in Virginia; 99% female, 96% Caucasian, and 86% married with a mean age of 40 years.
Conclusion: Information about managing sexual harassment needs to be incorporated into the dental hygiene curricula. This curriculum addition should include information on identifying sexual harassment incidents, strategies for controlling unacceptable behavior, the legal rights of employees, and the process of filing a formal complaint. Dental hygienists need to identify sexual harassment behaviors and receive prevention training though continuing education courses. Furthermore, the American Dental Hygienists Association and the American Dental Association need to collaboratively develop guidelines and policies for dentists and dental hygienists regarding the management of sexual harassment in the oral health care setting.