It's not 'lady doctor', it's doctor


The Age published an article this week that has made the medical community livid. Dr Gabrielle McMullin, a Sydney vascular surgeon, is being berated for the following statement
"Sexism is so rife amongst surgeons in Australia that young women in the field should probably just accept unwanted advances"  

Her comments relate to a female surgical trainee ‘Caroline’, who reported her senior for sexual harassment, and has since been unable to find work in a public hospital. 

Let’s not kid ourselves that Caroline's story is an isolated case. We simply know about her case because she took the advice we all shouted at our computer screens when we read Dr McMullin’s comments. Unlike most sexual assault victims, Caroline was empowered to make a report, even though it meant reporting someone directly senior to her. Caroline did exactly what we hope our sisters and daughters would do should (God forbid) they find themselves in this situation. However in an awful, but not that surprising twist, reporting her sexual assault cost Caroline her career.

Now lets consider the hundreds of other cases. The ones who didn’t make the news. The ones who, excuse my vulgarity, ‘got on their knees’, because it was easier. The ones who were too scared to tell anyone their boss made a pass at them. Or the ones who did confide in another doctor only to be told ‘keep your mouth shut and you’ll be fine’.

Keep your mouth shut and you’ll be fine. Medicine’s secret catchphrase.

Dr McMullin is not the problem here. She is simply the messenger. The problem here is a system where reporting sexual harassment is vehemently discouraged. A system where a young doctor successfully takes her assailant to court and is never employed by that system again. A system where big names have stood up this week and said sexual harassment is not a problem in medicine.

A quick glance at the female doctors I follow on twitter would disagree. We all have stories about sexual harassment at work- some of them subtle, some of them shocking. And yet person after person (mostly men, although I can't imagine why), have stood up and said sexual harassment is not a problem in medicine.

Perhaps we aren’t understanding what sexual harassment is. Perhaps we’re associating it with only the extreme example of rape, when it encompasses so much more than unwanted physical touching. Sexual harassment is ANY harassment in the workplace, involving unwanted sexual advances or obscene remarks. In its most subtle form, sexual harassment is every time you make a comment to a woman, whether in jest or sincerity, that you would not make to a man.*

Hence sexual harassment is every time you call me ‘blondie’ or ‘barbie’, every time you make a joke about my choice to wear a skirt not pants, every time you comment on my appearance rather than my skillset, every time you call me a ‘lady doctor’ instead of a ‘doctor’.

Sexual harassment is 2 weeks ago when I lead a code blue which saved a woman on the labour ward & my male colleague arrived after the fact & said ‘they shouldn’t send you up here, you’re too clucky’.  
It’s the consultant who commented that I’d ‘obviously gotten to where I was at a young age because I was pretty’ (Um, maybe I’m actually good at my job?) 
It’s the surgical registrar who told me if I wanted to be taken seriously I needed to dye my hair dark. 
It’s that I’m a little bit scared I’ll lose my job for writing this blog post.

‘Oh but that’s banter!’, you say. ‘Learn to take a joke!’ ‘Don’t be so lame’.


Have you considered the extent of what we hide under that lighthearted term of ‘banter’? This banter is what has allowed the subtle undercurrent of sexual harassment to become a well accepted part of our profession. The fact is, these comments are so common and unexciting that we forget that they are not okay.
These seemingly harmless comments, coupled with the line that we 'need to take a joke', teach women in medicine that they need to just accept everyday sexual harassment. And worse still, they encourage those deeds further along the spectrum of sexual harassment.

Where do we draw the line between commenting on someone's appearance to commenting on her body to making an unwanted sexual advance? Clearly we're having a great deal of trouble with the grey zone, so why don't we stop subtle sexual harassment where it starts. 

Now I’d love to be such an influential blog that I could ask hospitals and colleges to make clear their processes for reporting sexual harassment, or for a public campaign to stop #subtlesexualharassment. But I suspect my blog's reach is about 5 people including my mum.

Instead I’m going to ask you, that this week you look out for subtle sexual harassment and call it out. Whether you’re the med student, the consultant, the nurse, the dietician or the plaster tech, that when you hear a comment towards a woman that would not be made if she was a man say ‘hey! Let’s not make jokes based on gender’, or 'i don't think that's appropriate'. 

Maybe, just maybe, the tiny ripples of change could start here. 


*I am very aware that sexual harassment also happens towards men, however I don't feel I'm in position to comment on that. Nonetheless, let’s not dismiss this problem just because it applies to both genders. If you have a story on sexual harassment as a male in a hospital and how your female colleagues could empower you, please let me know & I’ll publish it on my blog.

I'd like to acknowledge and thank the amazing people I follow on twitter who helped me form the ideas in this blog. Most notably: @trisha_the_doc @dr_fiona @allan_katie @michelle_li @tweediatrics & @_thezol 

I have been lucky enough to work at many hospitals during my training & through locuming. These views do not represent any of them, nor the college with which I have a training position. The hospital I am currently employed with is incredible and supportive, but as this blog approaches 1K shares on Twitter and over 10K views it's clear this problem is not hospital-specific, it's medicine wide. 

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