A storm is brewing in Australia’s medical profession, as more female doctors back claims that sexual harassment in hospitals is rife.
Last week Dr Gabrielle McMullin, a vascular surgeon and co-author of Pathways to Gender Equality, drew criticism when she claimed at her book launch that sexual harrassment was rife in her profession.
Speaking to the ABC after the Sydney event, she elaborated on her point by telling the story of a neurosurgical trainee.
The young woman, “Caroline”, reported a sexual assault by a senior surgeon — and as a result, was never again able to find work in a public hospital, Dr McMullen said.
“Her career was ruined by this one guy asking for sex on this night, and realistically she would have been much better to have given him a blow job on that night,” Dr McMullin told ABC’s AM program.
“What I tell my trainees is that, if you are approached for sex, probably the safest thing to do in terms of your career is to comply with the request.”
The anecdote provoked controversy across the country — and now, more female doctors have come forward to back Dr McMullin’s claims about the prevalence of harassment in the profession. It’s hoped that these claims will force those in powerful to do more to help victims and prevent assaults from occurring the first place.
One young doctor, Dr Ashleigh Witt, defended Dr McMullin as “simply the messenger” of the troubling message.
“The problem here is a system where reporting sexual harassment is vehemently discouraged,” Dr Witt wrote in a blog post. “Let’s not kid ourselves that Caroline’s story is an isolated case… Keep your mouth shut and you’ll be fine (is) medicine’s secret catchphrase.”
Dr Witt also questioned whether doctors knew that sexual harrassment doesn’t just include rape, but “encompasses so much more than unwanted physical touching.”
“(S)exual harassment is every time you call me ‘blondie’ or ‘barbie’, every time you make a joke about my choice to wear a skirt not pants, every time you comment on my appearance rather than my skillset, every time you call me a ‘lady doctor’ instead of a ‘doctor’,” she said.
Yet another female doctor published an anonymous open letter to the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons saying that her gender defined her entire surgical career.
“As a senior surgeon now, I can definitively state that my gender has not only influenced my career, but in fact has defined it,” she wrote, in the letter published in The Age.
“It was defined when I was denied operating sessions by my unit head because my colleague had ‘a wife and child to support’. It is defined every time I am told that I should just ‘concentrate on my children rather than worry about developing a private practice’. It is defined in the quick “my dear” here and the comment about quotas and tokenism there.”