Here’s a quick International Women’s Day quiz.
If a female surgical trainee is approached for sex by a senior colleague, should she?
B. Decline and complain.
The answer, according to Dr Gabrielle McMullin, a senior vascular surgeon in Sydney, is C.
“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,” Dr McMullin told the ABC on Friday.
Giving in to sexual harassment is ‘easier’ than complaining because of rampant sexism in the profession. After reading this and her explanation of a Melbourne surgical trainee who won damages but lost her career after pursuing a sexual harassment case, I very nearly cried. How ghastly.
In a profession like surgery where you might expect to be dealing with intelligent and educated individuals, is the concept that a woman is not there for a man’s sexual titillation too complex to grasp? So complex that if refused, a woman’s career might be in tatters?
Is the sexism so rampant and deeply entrenched in surgery that a woman’s career can turn on her refusing a man’s unwanted sexual advances?
I don’t doubt Dr McMullin’s assessment that this is the case. Women make up about 9% of surgeons in Australia and having spent 20 years in the profession Dr McMullin would obviously be well positioned to comment on its culture and I applaud her speaking out about the reality.
But there is a significant difference between saying the sexism is as ugly as it is prolific, and telling junior staff to accept that and any sexual harassment that flows from it.
It is unsurprising these comments have sparked controversy. Fairfax Media reports that the surgeon stands by her comments.
“I am so frustrated with what is going on that I really didn’t care, didn’t think what the reaction would be,” Dr McMullin said. “All the phone calls that I have received since are from women saying, ‘Yes, thank you’. It’s been hidden and suppressed for so long and it’s only when it comes out in the open that you can do something about it. So, I guess this is my attempt to air it.”
I am torn. Could Dr McMullin single-handedly tackle the sexism that pervades her profession? Could she have protected every single female trainee she encountered from its clutches? Absolutely not.
But I am equally resolute that telling young women to embrace unwelcome sexual advances from senior colleagues is obscene. The standard we walk past is the standard we accept.
What is the right answer? What a topic to ponder in Australia in 2015? On International Women’s Day, no less.