In 2008, Dr Caroline Tan was awarded the highest level of compensation at that time for a sexual harassment claim. The award of $100,000 was made after she successfully pursued a claim against Mr Chris Xenos, a senior neurosurgeon, after she has been sexually harassed while carrying out her training in neurosurgery.
Since this time, the surgical field has been in and out of the spotlight. In March 2015, fellow surgeon, Dr Gabrielle McMullin, pointed out that winning her sexual harassment claim wasn’t exactly a victory for Dr Tan. For the first time, Caroline Tan broke her silence. She backed the mounting claims that sexism, harassment and bullying are rife amongst surgeons, and it is those who dare to speak up who are being punished, not the perpetrators. She said that she did not regret reporting Mr Xenos’ behaviour, but reinforced the genuine dilemma for female doctors, who are afraid that speaking out could ultimately ruin their career.
Shortly after Dr McMullin and Dr Tan spoke up, a leading Victorian surgeon resigned from his position at a major Melbourne hospital. He had been the subject of serious complaints raised by at least seven junior surgeons, who said that he had been able to get away with sexually harassing behaviour towards them over a significant period. The behaviour being brought into the spotlight by the comments of Dr McMullin and Dr Tan was changing this.
These events attracted scrutiny and disruption to the surgical world. They led to the commissioning of a report by the Australian College of Surgeons, results from which were published this month.
The report has not only endorsed the views of Dr Tan and Dr McMullin, it has revealed details of extreme, harrowing and repeated experiences of unlawful behaviour by those in the surgical profession. Of those who responded, 122 males and 65 females reported experiences of bullying, 34 males and 38 females reported experiences of discrimination and 7 males and 25 females reported experiences of sexual harassment.
Here are some of the testimonies taken directly from the report itself:
‘I was told I would only be considered for a job if I had my tubes tied.’
‘There has been overt and established bullying, within the college and condoned by wilful blindness to act.
‘Bullying is rife in our surgical community and anyone who says it’s not is kidding themselves.’
‘I have told you about this so you can get a feeling of how systemic the bullying problem is.’
‘The trainee was told to go outside and take his life. This sort of behaviour was not out of the ordinary.’
‘I was expected to provide sexual favours in his consulting rooms in return for tutorship.’
‘I was told I was hard to work with but would be good to sleep with.’
Reading these testimonies, the serious and endemic nature of the problem becomes strikingly apparent. It is not limited to specific sectors or hospitals and is exacerbated by the fear those affected feel about speaking out:
‘I complete this questionnaire with a large degree of fear and trepidation.’
‘I am terrified even to say what I say here.’
The impact that this has had on the profession has been monumental. Many in the profession have taken to social media to voice their views, saying that the behaviour is ‘shocking beyond belief…shame on the perpetrators and those who stood silently by’. The comments have not been limited to the surgical profession, ‘The surgeons…are getting their house in order. I hope other houses are following suit’.
It has also called into question whether Australia is lagging significantly behind in its approach to equal opportunity and appropriate behaviour in the workplace. The New Yorker’s medical writer and Harvard surgery professor, Atul Gawande, called the report findings ‘horrific’. He wrote ‘Aussie report finds female surgeons coerced to give sexual favours. Am I naïve to think: not here?’
But it’s not all negative. The profession seems determined to make a change for the better.
Australian Medical Association president Brian Owler said it would be up to the current generation of surgeons to ‘break the cycle’ of bullying, harassment and discrimination in the profession. ‘We need to be the first generation that does not perpetuate this culture of bullying and that we ensure that we look after our colleagues,’ he said.
The report makes recommendations which provide an opportunity for surgeons to lead the way in eradicating this behaviour. The recommendations include:
- Reviewing complaints processes and ways to make them more effective
- Providing appropriate support
- Developing and implementing training programs
- Developing methods to monitor the training.
These recommendations can be applied in any industry and profession to help eradicate a culture of discrimination, harassment and bullying before the spotlight moves to rock them in the same way as the surgical profession.
A copy of the full report can be found here: http://www.surgeons.org/media/22045694/PersonalStoriesReport_FINAL.pdf