We recently saw the surgical industry come into the spotlight, with female surgeons taking a stand on the sensitive topic of sexual harassment. Sydney surgeon, Gabrielle McMullin paved the way for other surgeons, both male and female, to speak up about sexual harassment they had experienced in their work and, more shockingly, the ingrained belief amongst the majority in the industry that this type of behaviour should be tolerated if you wanted to progress. Learning Seat published an article on this topic a few weeks ago.
It hasn’t taken long for others to speak up. This time, the spotlight is on academia. Earlier this week, a high-profile physicist from the University of Berkley in California, Geoff Marcy, was found to have repeatedly sexually harassed women in his department.
The University threatened little more than to suspend or dismiss Marcy if the behaviour didn’t change. The scientific community, however, made its voice heard in protest to the behaviour, resulting in Marcy’s resignation. The voice of academia has rapidly followed suit in Australia.
Dr Katie Mack, a physicist at an Australian university, testified to a culture existing in universities in Australia in which there is a vast power difference between established professors and students. She said that it is not unusual in academic circles to hear of inappropriate touching comments, propositioning and even allegations of rape.
In a manner not dissimilar to that called out amongst surgeons, Dr Mack also testified to hearing ‘so many stories of people being told to just put up with it’.
Finally, because of voices such as those of Dr McMullin and Dr Mack, industry groups, be it surgery, academia or any other industry, can no longer get away with taking minimal action to raise awareness of sexual harassment among its staff and to make the message clear that such behaviour is not to be tolerated: they ‘have to hold themselves to account’.
Professor Catherine Lumby, a fellow Australian academic, has been consulting with universities on a pro bono basis about this issue. She agrees, stating that ‘universities [need] external educators and investigators to change their…culture’. In further efforts to raise awareness, students attending some of Australia’s top universities have become so concerned about sexual harassment that they have launched sexual consent workshops and campaigns.
The time when this behaviour can be ignored, or treated as a less serious issue, is over. The pressure is on to take action to educate and develop a culture of accountability. The consequences of failing to do so will be crippling for any industry.