Surgeon puts spotlight on shocking sexual harassment

One prominent surgeon’s controversial comments have led to several women coming forward about their own experiences.

By Chloe Taylor

Recent reports have brought allegations to light that sexual harassment is a major issue in Australian hospitals – and victims are not speaking out because of inadequate complaint processes as well as a fear that it could ruin their careers.

Dr Gabrielle McMullin, a vascular surgeon in Sydney, said that sexism is so common among Australia’s surgeons that the industry’s women should simply accept unwanted sexual advances.

McMullin told ABC Radio on Friday that one case had seen a Melbourne woman win a sexual harassment case against a surgeon but fail to secure work at any public hospital because of the victory.

“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,” McMullin said. “The worst thing you can possibly do is to complain to the supervising body because then, as in [this woman’s] position, you can be sure that you will never be appointed to a major public hospital.”

McMullin’s views have caused controversy and have been met with backlash within her own profession.

“This old view of acceptance needs to be eradicated,” said Australian Medical Association Victoria president Dr Tony Bartone in a statement. “Sexual assault is a crime and will not be tolerated by our society. The medical profession is not exempt from this maxim.”

He added that all public hospitals have procedures in place to encourage and allow staff to report any form of harassment, and that “there should not be negative consequences for reporting”. 

More than a dozen female doctors contacted Fairfax Media to confirm that sexual harassment was rife and occurring within a culture of silence in Australia’s medical industry, and that those who wanted to protect their careers knew not to speak out.

According to reports by The Sydney Morning Herald, the doctors said they had been subjected to an array of sexism from inappropriate jokes to sexual advances – and the perpetrators are senior members of staff who have the power to heavily influence their careers.

Some of those who came forward reportedly said they would not trust the complaint systems in place at hospitals and colleges because there is an established culture of “untouchables”.

A female surgeon, who remains anonymous, said the problem was particularly bad in surgery as the profession is so heavily male-dominated.

“Advice to keep quiet about sexual harassment, assault and rape arises because there is a long history of such reports being dealt with poorly,” she said, adding that victims are often disbelieved and left with “obliterated” careers if they speak out.

Another female doctor claimed that her male superiors directed misogynistic insults and explicit sexual harassment towards her during her time as an unaccredited registrar at a Melbourne hospital two years ago.

She also asked not to be named out of fear that her claims might damage her career.

The Herald reported that surgeons regularly told the woman that she was a “dumb b****” and that women were “f***ing useless.” On one occasion, a consultant surgeon allegedly told her to “get some knee pads” so that she could perform oral sex – she claimed that this was “laughed off” by colleagues.

“They think they own you, a lot of these guys,” she said, adding that she had been ostracised when she rejected one of her superiors’ advances. “As soon as you stand up, you cop a lot.”

Although HR offered to organise mediation, the woman claimed that she dropped the allegations after surgeons told her they would ruin her career.

Even taking the action that far hindered her career progression, she claimed, and has since had to move into an alternative area of medicine.

One female surgeon said that hospital administrators were renowned for turning a blind eye to complaints in order to protect the prominent surgeons who bring their institutions money and prestige.

Even the College of Surgeons could not be trusted with complaints, it has been claimed, because it is a “bunch of old boys” who protect one another.

A spokesman for the College of Surgeons said that the body did not condone harassment, and encouraged all members to report incidents such as these.

Another of the complainants alleged that female surgeons are tolerated only in “small numbers”, but only if they are “single, childless and pretend to be men”.

She also alleged that it is common practice in the industry for men to quiz their female colleagues about their family planning, with pregnancy being used to discredit and undermine women’s abilities.

“I was told when I was an intern that there are only two types of women surgeons: women who shouldn't be surgeons and surgeons who shouldn't be women,” she claimed.

“It’s always a challenge to represent a realistic picture of the state of play as McMullin has and give pragmatic advice to women in the industry,” Lisa Annese, CEO of Diversity Council Australia (DCA), told HC. “She should be applauded for telling it like it is in terms of describing the retrograde, appalling sexism women face. However, DCA would not support advocating a ‘suck it up Bambi’ approach – however well intended. This should not be an approach that in 21st century Australia we regard as acceptable or appropriate.”

Annese added that McMullin should be shifting her approach from how the women in the industry should alter their responses to harassment, when really she should be putting out a challenge to:

  1. The industry and its employers, that they support and invest in women who are subjected to this appalling type of behaviour – both at the time of complaint and post-complaint. Women who stand up for themselves must be treated with respect and as a professional, rather than a sex object. Women should not be further victimised following having the courage to take a stand – in fact it is illegal to do so. Instead of being treated as a pariah post-employment, someone in the industry should be picking her up and offering her employment as soon as possible, recognising the qualities of respect, professionalism and courage.
  2. Male colleagues in the industry who are willing to act as bystanders to the harassment.
Kate Drummond, neurosurgeon at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, said that McMullin’s approach was “preposterous” and could lead to a decline in the number of female surgeons.

"I'm not saying it doesn't happen – of course it happens, it happens everywhere – [but] I don't think it is rife and rampant throughout the profession,” she told the Herald. “And the one thing that will make the pockets of trouble better is to have as many female surgeons as possible, and comments like [McMullin's] don't help that."

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