What’s worse? The prevalence of sexism in surgery or the lengths others will go to protect perpetrators | Women's Agenda

What’s worse? The prevalence of sexism in surgery or the lengths others will go to protect perpetrators

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Dr Caroline Tan, the neurosurgeon whose experience of sexual harassment prompted vascular surgeon Dr Gabrielle McMullin to start an unprecedented public discussion about sexism in medicine has spoken. 

In an interview with Fairfax Media’s health editor Julia Medew Dr Tan said the profession must address the issue of harassment and a culture of fear and silence.

“This is not going away. They need to face the music. I’m sure that’s going to be uncomfortable for them, but it’s going to be for the better,” Dr Tan said.  

Two things stick in my mind from reading more about Dr Tan’s attempt to hold a senior surgeon to account for sexually assaulting and harassing her in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal in 2008. 

First, is that the person charged with the power and responsibility to respond to complaints of sexual harassment in the Monash Medical Centre responded to her initial complaint with this question:  “What do you expect when you dress the way you do?”

The second is that another senior doctor told the hearing that Dr Tan wore provocative clothing and had “set the cause of feminism back fifty years” by levelling a complaint against her male colleague.

How very dare a female lucky enough to be training as a neurosurgeon would challenge a senior colleague? It’s as if getting a position wasn’t enough for her. She wanted to be treated appropriately too.

Dr Tan was ultimately “successful” in her application in that the doctor was required to pay $100,000 in damages. But was she really successful? He kept his job and she has been unable to secure a position in a public hospital since.  

She was the victim of harassment and the victim for pursuing action.

Last night it was reported that last week a top surgeon had resigned from The Alfred Hospital in Melbourne amid sexual harassment allegations.

The doctor who hasn’t been named was the subject of sexual harassment claims from at least seven junior surgeons.

Nick McKenzie and Richard Baker from Fairfax Media report that this surgeon is alleged to have behaved inappropriately for years but has had it excused due to his seniority.

The allegations are quite shocking but what shocked me more was the reported response from supporters. Apparently they say his behaviour was inappropriate “but was the product of his misguided efforts to be jocular”.

Are we really expected to believe that a person is sufficiently equipped to lead a surgical department and yet simultaneously accept that the same person is not sufficiently equipped to recognise that asking a junior member of staff to take her clothes off was inappropriate?

Another supporter said this. “The tragedy about this case is that [the surgeon] is a dedicated public servant. Had people felt more comfortable to raise their concerns years ago, this could have all been prevented.”

Personally I am more inclined to believe the bigger tragedy is that at least seven junior surgeons – who are almost certainly also dedicated public servants at a fraction of the cost of their supervisor – were subject to harassment by their boss. And if we’re talking prevention isn’t the more pertinent fact that IF THE SURGEON HAD BEHAVED APPROPRIATELY IT WOULDN’T HAVE HAPPENED?

This past week has shed light on the prevalence of sexism in medicine and it’s damning. But equally damning is the lengths others inside the system will go to protect those who perpetrate it. Frankly the scary part is how unknowing they are about doing it.

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