How tin gods (and a tin goddess) operate 2

Vascular surgeon Gabrielle McMullin

Vascular surgeon Gabrielle McMullin

Julia Medew, ’Royal Australasian College of Surgeons “ignored sexual harassment complaints”’

The Sydney Morning Herald, 02.10.15

Complaints that female trainees were being sexually harassed by senior surgeons corruptly wielding power over their careers have been ignored by the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons for seven years, a doctor says.

Explosive leaked documents reveal Sydney surgeon Gabrielle McMullin told the college in 2008 that three female trainees had asked her advice on how to deal with senior surgeons asking for sexual favours. In two cases, corruption of training processes was alleged.

“In one case the surgeon has offered a place on a training scheme based on the granting of sexual services. In another case the surgeon has become very angry about the refusal of sexual services and consequently produced a report that questioned the ability of the trainee,” Dr McMullin wrote in a letter to then president Ian Gough.

Dr McMullin said she told the trainees that granting sexual services was “probably the safest way to play it in that there will be no ‘fuss'”. However, she said she warned the women that “men have very short memories following sex and are unlikely to follow through with promises of training positions”.

“Refusing sexual services is the most palatable option but it is likely to lead to some grief in terms of references and reports,” she wrote in the letter to Professor Gough.

“I have discussed, with my male colleagues, the possibility of making a complaint to the college and this suggestion has been greeted with horror and an assurance that such a complaint would mean the end of the surgical career of the trainee.”

In the letter, Dr McMullin said she found the situation abhorrent and wanted to protect the trainees. She asked for advice about how the problem should be tackled.

But Dr McMullin, who shot to prominence earlier this year when she commented on sexual harassment in surgery, said the college was not interested in investigating the allegations.

While her letter was acknowledged with a written response about the college’s policies and a phone call, she said nobody asked her who the alleged perpetrators were or for more information from the trainees.

“They did not want to know,” she said. “You might think someone would phone me and say, ‘Oh my goodness, this is a terrible situation. Would you like to come and talk to us about it in confidence?’ I was just a bad smell and they just wanted me to go away.”

In March, Dr McMullin warned that sexism was so rife among surgeons, and complaint mechanisms were so weak, that it was safer for women, in terms of their careers, to give in to sexual advances from superiors rather than to refuse them or complain.

The president of the college at the time, Professor Michael Grigg, slammed her comments as “appalling” and said victims should be reporting harassment. At the time, a college spokesman also said: “The college actively encourages trainees and fellows to come forward in confidence with any such allegations, which will be thoroughly investigated.”

Documents show that in 2008, the college’s chief executive, David Hillis, wrote to the executive committee describing Dr McMullin’s claims as “deeply disturbing”, and he said college fellows had been involved in “a number of events where professional (including educational) and personal activities have become significantly blurred”.

Dr Hillis sought legal advice from Michael Gorton, a lawyer who was also then chairman of the Victorian Equal Opportunities and Human Rights Commission.

In a letter to the committee, Mr Gorton said the claims “cannot be lightly ignored” and warned the college it could face legal action.

“The college is on notice of its potential risk in relation to discrimination, harassment and bullying issues,” he said.

“Whilst obviously primary responsibility for these issues remains at the employer level (hospitals and others), there remains exposure for the college. Supervisors of training could be seen as agents of the college, for which the college will have vicarious liability.”

Mr Gorton recommended better policies, education, promotion of messages against harassment, a survey to determine the extent of it, and a mentoring program to help victims.

However, it is unclear what, if anything, the college did in response to this advice at the time. When asked this week why it did not seek further information from Dr McMullin about the perpetrators or victims, the college’s current president, Professor David Watters, did not comment.

Instead, he issued a written statement saying the college could improve its management of complaints and would release an action plan in November for tackling bullying, harassment and discrimination. This follows a report commissioned by the college this year which found half of all surgeons had been victims of the cultural problems.

“We have already made significant changes to our complaints management process, especially around the establishment of a RACS Complaints Hotline and RACS Support Program,” Professor Watters said.

Both the hotline and support program were created this year — seven years after Mr Gorton’s recommendations.


How tin gods (and a tin goddess) operate 1

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Craig Butt, ‘Female surgeons feel obliged to give sexual favours, report finds’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 10.09.15

Bullying, discrimination and sexual harassment are rife in the surgical profession, a damning report has found.

Half the surgeons and trainees who responded said they had been victimised.

Six months after senior surgeon Gabrielle McMullin said junior women doctors should “comply with requests” for sex to protect their medical careers, an independent survey of more than 3500 surgeons commissioned by the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons has revealed a “toxic culture” in surgery departments across Australia.

Although about three out of five registered trainees surveyed said they’d been bullied, making complaints was widely believed to be “career suicide”.

Sexism was entrenched and endemic and sexual harassment pervasive, with women reporting they felt powerless to protest.

Women reported much higher rates of victimisation than men. One in three of the 560 women surveyed reported they’d been sexually harassed.

Sexual propositions and innuendo were the most common forms of sexual harassment.Screen Shot 2015-09-10 at 1.52.40 pm

Women trainees and junior surgeons reported feeling obliged to give their supervisors sexual favours to keep their jobs. One woman reported that she had to “provide sexual favours in [her supervisor’s] consulting rooms in return for tutorship”.

Several women told the inquiry they felt “vulnerable and powerless when propositioned by senior male surgeons,” the report said.

“There are stories of acceptance at the time, as a ‘necessary evil’ with subsequent feelings of regret and shame. The impact of the sexual harassment was varied, ranging from annoyance at having to deal with it to utter despair and feelings of worthlessness.”

This follows reports from more than a dozen female doctors who contacted Fairfax Media in March to back Dr McMullin’s assertion that sexual harassment was widespread.

Dr McMullin has said that the career of Melbourne neurosurgeon Caroline Tan had been ruined by a sexual harassment case she won against a fellow neurosurgeon in 2008, and that “realistically” she would have been better off giving the man “a blow job”.

The report found a culture of fear and reprisal, with known bullies in senior positions seen as untouchable and too valuable for hospitals to discipline.

“This appears to be the single biggest issue fostering continuing poor behaviour by perpetrators, as so few people are prepared to challenge the status quo,” the report states.

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Several women reported active hostility to plans to start a family.

“I was told I would only be considered for a job if I had my tubes tied,” one reported. Others said they were made to work 30-hour shifts while heavily pregnant, or told to “pay back” their maternity leave by “doing all the on-call roster”.

Surgical departments were described as “boy’s clubs” with “institutional sexism on every level”.

Senior surgeons and supervisors regularly expressed doubts that women should be surgeons, and should instead “fetch the groceries”.

The college’s president David Watters said the results were “shocking” and apologised to all those who had been bullied.

“I am sorry too many of us have been silent bystanders,” Professor Watters said. “This silence has been part of the problem. We have failed to push back against the behaviour of those responsible and we should have done more to support those who had been affected.”

Like the police force and the army, the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons had to face up to the problem now that an independent inquiry had unearthed the true extent of the bullying and harassment, said the advisory group’s chairman Rob Knowles.

Stamping out bullying and harassment required the cooperation of the hospitals, said Mr Knowles. He flagged that the worst offenders could be removed from senior positions in surgical departments if conditions did not improve.

The draft report recommends cultural change and leadership among surgeons, better approaches to educating trainees, and better management of complaints about bullying.

The college is seeking feedback before the final report is handed down, and will produce an action plan to tackle bullying by the end of November.