The medical profession in general, and surgeons in particular, enjoy an exalted status. It would be churlish not to say, deservedly so. Surgeons save lives, have great skills, earn salaries equivalent to the GDP of a small African country. But lately some aspects of the profession, and some individuals in it, are beginning to resemble the Emperor’s new clothes. The pedestal, they’ve been standing on, is listing 45 degrees.
And it’s all because of an Australian vascular surgeon called Gabrielle McMullin.
The fact that she is Australian, although I mention it, really is irrelevant. She could have come from anywhere in the world and her comments would, on the balance of probabilities, apply. McMullin didn’t shatter the glass ceiling for women so much as demolish the entire building, Metaphorically speaking, she threw a hand grenade into possibly the biggest and oldest boy’s club on the planet. What is so intriguing about McMullin was the fairly innocuous way that she went about it.
McMullin was speaking at the launch of a book she co-authored about gender equality ahead of International Women’s Day. Not to put too fine a point on it, she effectively blew the whistle on sexual harassment in the medical profession, though to be honest whistles weren’t strictly speaking what she was referring to about being blown. McMullin told the story of a young female neurosurgeon. The daughter anyone would wish to have. Excelled at school, always wanted to be a doctor. She was training and going places. Then a particular established neurosurgeon with a big reputation took her under his wing. Except of course he did more than that, didn’t he. The neurosurgeon with the big reputation keep asking her back to his rooms after hours. On one particular occasion she felt it would be rude to refuse. So she didn’t. It was dark, there was no one around and he sexually assaulted her. The young woman doctor was horrified, ran out of the room but told no one. Then she began to receive bad professional reports. She was lazy and incompetent and all of her years of hard work were in danger of ending in total failure. So, she complained and won her case. But she didn’t. As McMullin told her somewhat spellbound audience, despite her legal victory that young doctor has never been appointed to a public position in any hospital in Australasia. Her career ruined by this one guy, who on one particular night, asked for sex and was refused. Then McMullin very demurely dropped a clanger that is reverberating around the entire medical profession in this country. McMullin said realistically that young female doctor would have been better off giving that neurosurgeon, with the big reputation, a blow job that night. McMullin then went on to say : “ What I tell my trainees is that, 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, because then, you can be sure, that you will never be appointed to a major public hospital.”
According to McMullin, to put it bluntly, gaining entry into medicine for women opens the door to a career marred by rampant sexism, and she says women need to be vigilant. “ We need to teach our trainees never to put themselves in a vulnerable position like that, no matter how nice, married and well-meaning the man seems,” McMullin said.
Now, it might come as no surprise that these comments caused a small earthquake. A number of people and groups have been dismayed by McMullin’s observations. A spokesperson for the Victorian Centre Against Sexual Assault, called the advice “appalling” and “irresponsible,” arguing that perpetrators thrive on not being challenged about their behaviour. “I would have thought highly trained professionals would be able to operate a better system than that,” the spokesperson said. “I actually don’t think that’s acceptable advice in this day and age.”
Similarly, the Head of Domestic Violence Victoria said: “It’s a sad indictment on us and the community when this is what women are being advised to do to benefit their career.”
Of course they miss the true meaning of what McMullin was saying. She was in no way condoning this kind of behaviour, far from it. The point she was making is that in one of the hardest University courses to enter and pass, where intellectually you have to be at the top of your game in a genre that represents the best and the brightest, there is still a sexist, chauvinist, misogynist boys club in the medical profession where women are expected to be on their knees at the beck and call of men. I may be overstating it slightly but you get my drift. Of course not all male doctors behave this way and it would be unfair and wrong to tar them with the one brush. But enough of them do and if women complain then their career is chopped liver. McMullin was being an anarchist and like all good anarchists she knew exactly where to throw the bomb.
And while she’s had her critics, Gabrielle McMullin also has her supporters. Plenty of women doctors have come out and publicly said it’s all true I tell you. One of them was compelled to publicly defend McMullin in a national daily newspaper. She wrote: “ Now lets consider the hundreds of other cases. The ones who didn’t make the news. The ones who, excuse my vulgarity, ‘got on their knees’, because it was easier. The ones who were too scared to tell anyone their boss made a pass at them. Or the ones who did confide in another doctor only to be told ‘keep your mouth shut and you’ll be fine’. Keep your mouth shut and you’ll be fine seems to be medicine’s catchphrase.
“ Dr McMullin is not the problem here. She is simply the messenger. The problem here is a system where reporting sexual harassment is vehemently discouraged. A system where a young doctor successfully takes her assailant to court and is never employed by that system again. A system where big names have stood up this week and said sexual harassment is not a problem in medicine. A quick glance at the female doctors I follow on twitter would disagree. We all have stories about sexual harassment at work some of them subtle, some of them shocking. And yet person after person (mostly men, although I can’t imagine why), have stood up and said sexual harassment is not a problem in medicine.”
Other female doctors also spoke to the newspaper. One of them said that male surgeons had routinely called her a “dumb b****” and a surgeon had told her to “get some knee pads and learn to suck c***”.
Another female doctor said there was a long history of reports of sexual assault and harassment being dealt with poorly, and that surgical careers of victims who spoke out were “obliterated”.
As you might expect, the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons was horrified by McMullin’s comments. The college issued a statement which said: it was “very disappointing and quite appalling that recent media reports have suggested that it is preferable for female surgical trainees to silently endure sexual harassment. “The college of Surgeons refutes this advice emphatically. “The inference is that this is what successful female surgeons and trainees have done in the past and this is deeply insulting.”
It sounds to me like a lot of RACS huffing and puffing. Surely what is really disappointing is that this kind of behaviour is happening at all. I will be honest and say for the life of me I can’t understand gender bias of any description. What is important is someone being good at their job. And if they are that’s the only thing that matters. I personally couldn’t care less who or what they are. And neither should anyone else. But I can’t help thinking was Gabrielle McMullin giving that advice from personal observation or personal experience? She was never asked nor did she volunteer an answer to that question. I will just suggest away the suggestion that there might have been more to it than just Gabrielle McMullin speaking up and out for her female colleagues. Not that any of this matters in the scheme of things.
The Australian Medical Association also weighed into the debate. Spokesman Doctor Saxon Smith said medicine had moved in a different direction in the past 20 years. “ Sure if you go back further than that then it may well be the case,” Smith said. “ But we know increasingly and the trend is that every graduating year for medicine is more female than male. There is a tide to turn.”
On behalf of female doctors I would like to say about bloody time and the tide can’t turn soon enough.