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Why I would like to congratulate surgeon Dr Gabrielle McMullin for her suggestion that female trainees give in to sexual harassment in the workplace

Medicine, The Health Industry

Please be warned that this article and those it links to discuss some explicit material.

Vascular surgeon Dr Gabrielle McMullin has issued a warning to women considering a career in surgery that giving in to sexual harassment is an easier path than pursuing the perpetrators, because of entrenched sexism amongst many male surgeons. The comments were made during an interview on ABC radio, just in time for International Women’s Day 2015.

Although at a first glance Dr McMullin’s comments appear to be “abhorrent, crazy, dangerous and terrible” as has been pointed out on the Today Show. But following are the reasons why I think they’re not.

Although I have never met Dr McMullin in person, I get the feeling that she wants to live in a world where women do not have to give into the perpetrators of sexual misconduct to advance their careers.

1. Dr McMullin is one of the authors of an e-book “Pathways to Gender Equality in Australia – The role of Merit and Quotas” which was launched at Parliament House on Friday night

Although I haven’t read the e-book and in particular Dr McMullin’s contribution, sections of the blurb are “In Australia there continues to be an unprecedented level of awareness of the glass ceiling for women in many key sectors,” and “this book attempts to reflect on what is sustaining the barriers women experience in different Australian sectors and, in particular, focus on the concept and application of merit as it is the accepted underlying principle that governs recruitment and advancement for men and women in Australian workplaces.” Dr McMullin’s chapter is called “Women in Medicine: Sisters doing it for themselves.” Does this sound like the work of someone who would make comments which are “abhorrent, crazy, dangerous and terrible?” I think not.

2. Exposing the sad truth 

This tweet by Dr Andrew Weatherall sums it up:

The sad truth is that ANYONE, male or female, going through the medical training pathway are vulnerable to the system. But for the sake of the topic at hand, let’s consider the scenario of a young girl who was very bright academically and wanted to become a doctor. While most people think that getting in to medicine is the hard part, consider the emotional journey the young girl will go on. She may have come from a high school where she was considered to be the “best and brightest” and then finds herself in a medical school with other students who were also the “best and brightest” at their school.

Does she jostle for a position to be amongst the “best and brightest” in her medical student cohort? Well, realistically she will have to because of what’s coming next.

Although Australian domestic students will be guaranteed an internship, there is no guarantee of a vocational position further down the medical training pathway to become the type of doctor she wants to be (e.g. dermatologist, general surgeon, anaesthetist). And she knows that although the number of people completing medical school in Australia has doubled since 2000, the number of vocational training positions available has only increased by 43%.

She knows that it will be difficult to get into the vocational training program of her choice. And if she does, there will be the exams she will have to pass as she goes through the program. And her supervisor, who is one of the decision makers about whether the will complete her training and become a fully qualified doctor starts making advances of a sexual nature towards her.

She has heard of the case where Dr Caroline Tan, who wanted to be a neurosurgeon, spoke out about her sexual assault, won the court case but was then unable to find a job in the public hospital system in Australia.

Does she put all those years of study in jeopardy and speak out? It’s a sickening decision I hope the doctors of tomorrow don’t have to make.

3. Creating the platform for others to come forward

In my opinion, Dr McMullin has used the media brilliantly to raise the platform for other women who have experienced sexual harassment throughout their medical training to speak out. This has already been done via social media by Dr Marie Bismark, who is a doctor / lawyer working to support human rights and the health of women and children.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Dr McMullin has also called for new laws to reward women for reporting sexual harassment rather than the current system of cash payouts and moral victories. “My main advice would be do not put yourself in that situation, treat everybody as a potential attacker, and that’s a terrible thing to have to do,” she said.

4. Planting the seeds of change

The fact that Dr McMullin came out and said that she tells her trainees “if you are approached for sex, probably the safest thing to do in terms of your career is to comply with the request. The worst thing you could possibly do is to complain to the supervising body.” It’s the sort of thing that when you say it, people are sickened and outraged, hopefully to the point that something will be done to change the situation. Social media is often one of the first places where a movement can gather momentum, and I have a feeling that we are seeing the beginning of that now:

So if I do ever meet you Dr Gabrielle McMullin, I do indeed hope that you are the person I have assumed you to be. A woman who is genuinely looking to be a player in women overcoming the gender equality gap, who chose the right time and the right platform on which to spread that message in a media-savvy way. If this was indeed your intention, congratulations and well played.

(Update 11/3/2015 – Dr McMullin, after reading your Q&A on Australian Doctor where you acknowledged that you comments were tongue-in cheek and that your comment about what I instruct my female students to do was not serious I believe you to be the person that I assumed you to be. Interestingly, when asked whether you aimed to be provocative, you answered “We certainly need to shine a light on this really dirty area, but I really did not expect the media furore, and that is my naivety. I should never be allowed to speak to the media.”). 

If the media furore wasn’t your intention, the great thing that has come out of this is that the light has been shone on the sexual harassment of women in medical training. In this day and age where transparency is on the agenda more and more often that will hopefully be a good thing in the long run.

Amanda Griffiths
Founder – My Health Career

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