Female Doctors Sexually Harassed-On Their Knees Rather Than Complain

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.

First Class Women Second Class Treatment When It Comes To Celebrating Lives

It’s always good to be reminded of how far we haven’t progressed. In two thousand and fifteen years of civilization we still treat women as second-class citizens. The glass ceiling, restricting career growth for women, remains largely un-shattered. Women still earn less than men even though they do the same job. And women are expected to make all of the career sacrifices when it comes to raising a family. In fact the second class tag seems to be especially apparent when the woman concerned has a led a first class life that achieved greatness. Take acclaimed Australian author, Colleen McCullough, who recently passed away at the age of 77. McCullough was a neuroscientist before she discovered that she had a supreme talent for writing best sellers. Her book, The Thorn Birds, sold 30 million copies worldwide. As you would expect with someone of McCullough’s stature, an obituary was written ostensibly to celebrate her high achieving life and published in an Australian national newspaper. Here is the opening paragraph. You be the judge: “ Colleen McCullough, Australia’s best-selling author, was a charmer. Plain of feature, and certainly overweight, she was, nonetheless, a woman of wit and warmth. In one interview, she said: “ I’ve never been into clothes or figure and the interesting thing is I never had any trouble attracting men.”

Now, you might want to ask what did we learn about Colleen McCullough from that introduction? Forget about the fact that she was a best-selling author. What is more important is that despite her ‘plain’ looks she could still attract a man, and that, ladies and gentlemen is worth celebrating. Of secondary importance was the fact that McCullough was a woman who penned The Thorn Birds, still the highest-selling Australian book of all time. And after working as a neuroscientist in Sydney, she went on to write that particular book during her time in the neurology department at Yale University. This is a woman who also wrote an acclaimed and methodically researched, seven book historical series called Masters of Rome, which won her diverse fans including Newt Gingrich. She is someone who accomplished an astonishing amount during her life, and here she is, reduced in a moment to her looks and her ability to attract men. As one columnist wryly observed, you could be forgiven for wondering if the obituary really wanted to say “Well, she was fat and not much of a looker, but somehow she managed to do ok in life, bless her”.

Now, if you think I am over-reacting, or being thin skinned, consider this. When Bryce Courtenay, an equally successful Australian author died in 2012, his obituary in the same newspaper began: “ Bryce Courtenay, was one of Australia’s greatest storytellers, touching the hearts of millions of people around the world with 21 bestselling books including The Power of One.”

A comparison of the two opening paragraphs speaks volumes.

Sadly, this is not an issue restricted to this particular newspaper, even though it is a clear and hideous example of it, or to McCullough herself. When the accomplished and brilliant rocket scientist, Yvonne Brill, passed away in 2013, the New York Times was strongly criticised for their obituary, which began with:

“ She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. “The world’s best mom,” her son Matthew said. “ But Yvonne Brill, who died on Wednesday at 88 in Princeton, N.J., was also a brilliant rocket scientist, who in the early 1970s invented a propulsion system to help keep communication satellites from slipping out of their orbits.”

Once again, a woman’s life full of incredible accomplishments is reduced to her position in relation to a man, and how good she was as a mother and a cook. As another columnist pointed out, the very fact that these outrageous obituaries are still being published, demonstrates how little has changed, and how women’s lives are still disrespected. It shows us that a woman’s physical attractiveness and relationships with men have greater weight than her personal accomplishments.

Brill was a brilliant rocket scientist, as well as a woman and a mother. As if all three were mutually exclusive. Colleen McCullough was plain and overweight, but she was warm and had wit and could attract men. These ‘attributes’ were hardly worth mentioning at all, let alone in the first paragraph of her obituary. What a shocking indictment that the summation of the exceptional lives of these two women, centred around their roles as wives, mothers or their ability to attract men.  Brill invented a rocket propulsion system for keeping communication satellites in orbit. But as far as the New York Times was concerned it was only worth a mention in passing.

That is not to say that personal relationships, husbands, wives and children are not vitally important in many people’s lives and should be included in a retrospective. But, all too often, women are firstly classed and summed up by the roles they play in a relationship, rather than by their personal achievements. The life of a brilliant male scientist would never be reduced to his looks, or how many wives he had. He would be remembered first for what he achieved in his career.

The McCullough obituary also dived into personal details of dubious relevance, such as the fact that her father was revealed to be a bigamist, and that she had married a man who was 13 years her junior. Seriously, so what?

Yes, evidently you can be a neuroscientist who wrote a mega-selling series of books in your spare time, but what will be most remarkable about your colorful life will be the fact you didn’t let your ‘plain’ looks hold you back.

I am so glad that social media rode the crest of the wave of disbelief in response to the patronizing McCullough obituary. With tweets like:

“Award for worst opening lines of an obituary goes to “… #everydaysexism pic.twitter.com/xmQogrR58P — Joanna McCarthy (@joanna_mcc)

“McCullough was a successful writer & neurophysiologist, but “she didn’t let being fat & ugly get her down” was the best they had. — Sophie Benjamin (@sophbenj)

“Colleen McCullough died this week, though of course her relevance as a human died much earlier, when she started overeating.” — Anna Spargo-Ryan (@annaspargoryan)

As yet, there has been no response from the newspaper concerned regarding the outcry over its canine of an obituary. But one columnist writing in a rival newspaper took the same approach to a noted male author, rejigging their obituary to reflect what was described as this brave new era in posthumous hatchet jobs:

“J.R.R. Tolkien was, a touch shrivelled and certainly orc-esque in his latter years, he nevertheless was a prolific and talented fantasy weaver.”

Touche.