An Australian female surgeon has spoken out against the systems in place to protect the health, safety and careers of female surgeons at Australian hospitals, as The Sydney Morning Herald reported. At her book launch held at Parliament House early this month, vascular surgeon Doctor Gabrielle McMullin claimed that the medical industry has failed to address sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the workplace. As Doctor McMullin told ABC reporters, her experiences – and hearing reports of others’ – have led her to believe that women entering the medical field should be prepared for a culture of “rampant sexism”. She claims that supervising bodies, which would include the Australian Medical Association in each Australian state, and the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (RACS), have proven to be ineffective in dealing with complaints of workplace sexism and harassment. She suggested that such bodies do not protect the complainant from career regression following a complaint, citing a case of surgeon Doctor Caroline Tan having her career “ruined” as a result of not staying quiet about being sexually assaulted in the workplace.
Doctor McMullin mentioned several victims of sexist bullying and harassment who avoided reporting such incidents out of fears for their employment, and said that there is a discrepancy between what workplace health and safety policies state, and what actually happens in the medical profession. As reported in The Daily Telegraph, Doctor McMullin’s view that female trainees are better off simply “complying with requests” for sex arises from her experience of the misogynistic “boys club” in charge at Australian medical centres and hospitals.
Under Australian Workplace Health and Safety legislation, employers have a legal responsibility to provide a workplace free from harassment and discrimination, and the federal Sex Discrimination Act (1984) makes sexual harassment unlawful. The Human Rights Commission stipulates that there should be formal and informal internal workplace processes in place to handle complaints. While a consultative panel called ‘Women in Surgery’ exists in RACS, according to The Sydney Morning Herald, it does not have the power to implement changes to ensure the safety and welfare of workers in Australian hospitals.
Doctor McMullin’s comments regarding the prevalence of sexism have sparked a series of responses from RACS, the Women in Surgery Committee, critics and supporters. We hope that Doctor McMullin speaking out against gender discrimination has, at the very least, stimulated conversations and actions geared towards ensuring safe and inclusive work environments.