A senior female surgeon mentions sexual abuse in the workplace and unleashed a storm of #meetoo stories

Bullying is a problem in every workplace. But it particularly affects junior Doctors.

Medical careers require many years of mentorship, study and supervised work. Competition is extremely fierce. The culture of medicine is deeply conservative.

And Doctors speaking out publicly against other Doctors, is the profession's biggest taboo.

This story starts with a book launch.

Dr Gabrielle McMullin, a consultant vascular and endovascular surgeon was on stage, introducing the book Pathways to Gender Equality, at Australian Centre for Leadership in Women. She had written a chapter in the book called Women in Medicine: Sisters doing it for themselves.

The comments she made at the launch, set off a national scandal.

“What I tell my trainees is that if you are approached for sex, probably the safest thing to do for your career is to comply with the request, unpleasant as it may be.” Dr Gabrielle McMullin.

The media went into a frenzy of outrage. First that a prominent women might say something so blatantly sexist. And then that sexual abuse might be a substantial, if hidden issue in medicine.

The Royal Australia College of Surgeons instantly denied there was a systemic problem. It then urged female Doctors who had experienced problems to come forward.

Dr McMullin backed up her claims with detailed case histories of surgical trainees, who had made complaints about sexism which were inappropriately handled. In many cases the complainant was forced to end her surgical training and the alleged perpetrator was allowed to go unpunished.

Dr McMullin shared some of the comments made to female Doctors, wanting to become qualified surgeons in Australia.

  • Being sexually harassed then told “you should be flattered”
  • Being called a “dumb bitch’ and ‘f***ing useless”
  • Told to “get some knee pads and learn to suck c**k”

Female surgeons also stated that sexual harassment was occurring within a culture of cover-ups and fear.

“The worst thing you could do,” they said “is to complain to a supervising body”.

In 2006 Dr Caroline Tan, then a neurosurgical registrar at Monash in February made a complaint of sexual harassment by Mr Chris Xenos, a senior surgeon.

She alleged that he  -

“grasped her unexpectedly from behind, spun her around, embraced her, kissed her on the lips, put his hand on her breast, pinned her against the desk, pulled his erect penis out of his fly then said to here, do you want to go down on this?”

Caroline initially reported the assault to the head of neurosurgery at the hospital. She was allegedly told that 'she had invited the treatment by wearing provocative clothing.'

However Caroline did not give up her fight for justice. The case ended up in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal in 2008.

Dr Tan eventually won the case despite facing an assault on her personal and professional character. Mr Xenos was ordered to pay $100,000 in damages.

This failed to cover her costs of fighting her case. She has been unable to secure a position in a public hospital since the case.

Caroline believes there is a culture of fearful silence in Australian hospitals, and has called for an enquiry into the mistreatment of whistleblowers.

(Dr Tan said) that while she did not regret reporting Mr Xenos, she suspected it had caused her surgical colleagues to shun her and overlook her for at least eight jobs.

Even for the competitive field of medicine, there are high rates of drop out of medical programs among female Doctors.

According to Dr Ruth Mitchell, a neurosurgeon registrar at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, women are at least twice as likely to drop out of surgical training programs as men.

While 52% of medical graduates were women in 2013, only 9% of fully qualified surgeons are women.

Dr Mitchell’s presentation The Case of the Missing Trainees showed that female doctors are least likely to qualify in surgical specialities. Despite one in four medical specialists being female in 2012, only 8.8 percent of surgeons were female.

The Case of the missing trainees - Dr Ruth Mitchell

In 2013, a survey of 1800 medical students showed that -

  • over half were emotionally exhausted
  • close to 10% showed high levels of psychological distress
  • about one in five had considered committing suicide in the previous year

In 2015 4 Corners did a program titled ‘At their Mercy’, in which Dr Tan talks about her experiences of sexual harassment and medical students speak out about serious bullying.

Perhaps the last word should go to Sarah Blair, MD, vice chair of academic affairs in the department of surgery and professor of surgery at the University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine

“Women in surgery are facing the same issues as women in other professions, like lawyers, bankers, and software engineers…. But we're just going to keep the pressure up until we fix it.”

© Wikihospitals 2014.

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Surgeon Caroline Tan breaks silence over sexual harassment in hospitals
A neurosurgeon whose career was derailed after she spoke out about sexual assault has demanded an inquiry into the treatment of whistleblowers.
Tan v Xenos (No 3) (Anti-Discrimination) [2008] VCAT 584 (11 April 2008)
Australasian Legal Information Institute (AustLII), a joint facility of UTS and UNSW Faculties of Law.
Sexual harassment in the medical profession: legal and ethical responsibilities
Sexual harassment in medicine has implications for employers, professional colleges and associations, and regulators
A woman’s place is in theatre: women’s perceptions and experiences of working in surgery from the Association of Surgeons of Great Britain and Ireland women in surgery working group
Objective Surgery remains an inherently male-dominated profession. The aim of this study was to survey women working within the discipline, to understand their current perceptions, providing insight into their practical day-to-day lives, supporting an action-oriented change. Design and setting The …