A ‘culture of retribution’, sex discrimination, harassment and bullying – the undue costs of women working in Ambulance services in Australia

A ‘culture of retribution’, sex discrimination, harassment and bullying – the undue costs of women working in Ambulance services in Australia


Bullying, harassment and sexism shouldn’t be part of a woman’s work day but the Victorian Human Rights Commission’s investigation into ambulance services in Victoria has uncovered that women paramedics experience just that.

They have revealed compelling evidence that women paramedics have been confronting incidences of overt gender and sex based discrimination and harassment in the industry and that little is being done about it.

The inquiry of Victoria Ambulance brings to light a little examined but serious issue in ambulance services Australia wide. The undue stress and trauma of discrimination, bullying and harassment impacts not only on the personal work day, but ultimately has an effect on service provision and, therefore, the community at large.

The uncovering of unlawful treatment of staff in ambulance services, by colleagues and by management is not new information. The 2008 NSW parliamentary Inquiry into the Management and Operations of NSW Ambulance Service by the NSW Legislative Council,revealed that the cultural practices of bullying and harassment within the organisation were having a significant impact on women. Leadership was criticised for failing to foster a safe work environment, not managing grievances and complaints effectively and creating a work environment where unresolved conflict and low staff morale was rife.

The inquiry reported on the high profile case of Christine Hodder a paramedic with NSW Ambulance at Cowra station who after years of bullying by male colleagues took her own life. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Christine’s tyres were let down, her toilet at work was urinated “all over” and she was constantly ridiculed by fellow officers in front of patients.

However, in the case of Christine Hodder, the Coroner failed to conduct an inquiry and little cultural change occurred in the Ambulance sector to protect women from unlawful behaviour perpetrated by colleagues. Less than a decade later in May 2017, the NSW Parliamentary legal affairs portfolio committee commenced an inquiry into the prevalence of bullying, harassment and discrimination in NSW emergency services. The 2018 report “NSW Parliamentary Inquiry into the policy response to Bullying, Harassment & Discrimination within Emergency Service Agencies” found that the Ambulance Service of NSW reported the highest rates of bullying compared with their emergency service counterparts.The inquiry acknowledged that gender equity policies exist but were not implemented or adhered to.

November 2020 has seen an eruption of complaints by female paramedics employed by Victoria Ambulance. There have been claims of sexual discrimination, bullying and harassment. Unfortunately, the outpouring of stories mirror those reported in NSW over the past decade. Of particular concern are the fears of many that their complaints will incur retribution. Women and men paramedics in Victoria have said that there is a “culture of retribution” in the service, those who complain are punished severely.

 Whilst it is understood that paramedicine is a risky occupation with its exposure to traumatic events, dealing with difficult and sometime violent patients, long hours and shift work, the exacerbation of these problems by the culture of discrimination, bullying and harassment is the larger problem. It is concerning to find that a raft of research has been conducted on paramedics and the effects of exposure to the traumatic nature of their work, but that virtually no research has been conducted on women’s experiences of everyday sexism within the ambulance services despite the recognition of the existence of these issues over a lengthy period of time.

It is understood that workplaces that struggle to effectively address sexism are commonly workplaces that have developed from a strong masculine culture.  These workplaces commonly offer poor flexibility in terms of work-life balance, lack family friendly policies and demand long hours. What is known about the often invisible impact of everyday sexism on women working in these environments is that they have higher levels of job dissatisfaction, lower self-esteem and associated issues of wellbeing, fewer opportunities for career development and advancement, and that it can contribute to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) a condition already more strongly associated with the type of work that paramedics do.

It is well understood and accepted that diverse workplaces intolerant of discrimination are healthier and more productive workplaces. Ambulance services have work to do to improve their workplace cultures and there are examples of organisations that are changing their cultures to become more inclusive, diverse, safe and fair places of work for women. It is hoped that this latest enquiry into ambulance service culture offers some practical solutions that will be implemented and ultimately address the ongoing issues of discrimination, bullying, harassment and of everyday sexism in paramedicine.

Co-authored by Alisha McFarlane, Dr Donna Bridges, Dr Ruth Townsend

Alisha McFarlane – Alisha has worked for the past 17 years as an Intensive Care Paramedic for NSW Ambulance. She has worked on road; in the role of paramedic educator and within the State Clinical Innovations team. Alisha has been a sessional academic at Charles Sturt University for the past 6 years and has made the transition to full time academia in early 2018. Alisha is the current chair of the Australasian College of Paramedicine (ACP) Clinical Standards Committee and has completed her undergraduate degrees in Education (UOW) and in Paramedicine (UTAS). Alisha is now currently completing her Bachelor of Science (Hons), with views to transition into a PhD. Alisha’s main interests lie in organisational culture and specifically the gendered experiences of women paramedics. Her current research focuses on the everyday sexism experiences of women paramedics in Australia.

Dr Donna Bridges – Donna Bridges is a sociology lecture at Charles Sturt University (CSU). Donna is a gender and work theorist and a feminist, qualitative researcher. Her work focuses on gender equality, gender norms in society, workplace inequality, discrimination and harassment. Donna leads the highly successful ‘Women in Trades’ project at CSU – a cross-faculty, multidisciplinary research study that has closely with industry and tradeswomen to understand why there are so few women in the trades (between 1-3% of the workforce are women) and develop interventions to improve the situation.

Dr Ruth Townsend – Ruth Townsend is a lecturer in law, ethics and professionalism at Charles Sturt University. Ruth has a special interest in administrative law and governance, having previously acted in the role of University Ombudsman. Ruth has also practiced as in-house counsel on commercial law matters for the NSW government and has an interest in health law and ethics and is the co-editor and author of the text, ‘Applied Paramedic Law and Ethics’ as well as numerous other book chapters and published articles on areas of health equality and the law. Ruth has a PhD in law from the ANU and spent time as a paramedic working for NSW Ambulance Service.

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