A senior surgeon says for women to protect their surgical careers, “complying with requests” for sex from male colleagues is a safer option than reporting the harassment.
Vascular surgeon Dr Gabrielle McMullin is a co-author of Pathways to Gender Equality – The Role of Merit and Quotas. The book was launched at Parliament House in Sydney last night.
Speaking to the ABC after the book launch Dr McMullin issued the reluctant warning to women entering medicine.
Despite increasing numbers of women entering the medical profession, Dr McMullin said sexual harassment in hospitals was rife.
She said she told trainees that giving in to sexual harassment was an easier path than pursuing the perpetrators, because of sexism among many male surgeons.
“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,” she said.
Dr McMullin told the ABC the story of a neurosurgical trainee in Melbourne suggested this was the case.
“Caroline was … the daughter that you’d wish to have. She excelled at school. What she always wanted to be was a neurosurgeon,” she said.
“At the hospital Caroline ended up training at, one surgeon took her under his wing. But things got uncomfortable.
“He kept asking her back to his rooms after hours. But after this one particularly long [work] session, she felt it was rude to refuse and they ended up back in his rooms, where, of course, it was dark and there was nobody else around, and he sexually assaulted her.
“She was horrified. She ran out of the office. She didn’t tell anyone.”
‘Worst thing you could do is complain to supervising body’
Dr McMullin said the surgeon began to give Caroline bad reports and faced with the prospect of failing after years of hard work, Caroline finally complained.
After a long and gruelling legal process, Caroline won her case.
“However, despite that victory, she has never been appointed to a public position in a hospital in Australasia,” Dr McMullin 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.
“The worst thing you could possibly do is to complain to the supervising body, because then, as in Caroline’s position, you can be sure that you will never be appointed to a major public hospital.”
AMA NSW president denies career implications for reporting harassment
Dr Saxon Smith, president of the Australian Medical Association in New South Wales, said there were clear guidelines that sexual harassment was not tolerated and that women should speak out.
“For your personal health and welfare but also to ensure that you are able to look after those around you as well, because you shouldn’t allow this thing to continue,” he said.
Dr Smith said he did not think there were severe implications for someone’s career if they followed through with a complaint.
“Certainly not in the way that medicine has moved in the last 20 years. Sure, if you go back further than that: yes, it may well have been the case,” he said.
“But we know increasingly and the trend is that every graduating year for medicine is more female than male as far as the graduate numbers. And as such, there is a tide to turn.”
Women now make up the majority of medical students in Australia and the United Kingdom.
But according to Dr McMullin, gaining entry into medicine for women opened the door to a career marred by rampant sexism, and she said women needed to be vigilant.
“We need to teach our trainees never to put themselves in a vulnerable position like that, no matter how nice, married and well-meaning the man seems.”