A report from the Royal College of Surgeons' has revealed the extent of sexism and discrimination within the surgical profession.
Tuesday, June 23, 2015 - 19:30

Today, the Royal College of Surgeons' expert advisory group put out summary research into sexism in the medical workplace.

"Discrimination, bullying and harassment are significant and persistent problems in medical work environments," stated the report. The research also found that students and trainees are identified as the most likely victims.

In March 2015, a leading Sydney surgeon Dr Gabrielle McMullan, made a comment on ABC Radio that sparked controversy, while discussing the career prospects of a young female surgeon who was propositioned for sex by a male colleague.

"She would have been much better to have given him a blow job on that night," she stated.

Dr McMullen further explained her position on ABC's 7.30. "Her career was ruined on that night. If she'd just given in, maybe she could have gotten a great job."

Her comments exposed a culture which remains unchanged and unchallenged for decades, which is only now being tackled head-on.

"The culture has been such that [victims] often quite fearful about raising issues of concern if they're bullied or sexually harassed, because they believe it could well be career threatening," said Rob Knowles, an advisor for the RACS. 

"I think we're all indebted to those who have been courageous enough to speak out on their experience and to call out sexual harassment and bullying that needs to be addressed."

The group has outlined systemic gender-based discrimination towards female surgeons, such as lower salaries, fewer opportunities for career advancement, different referral patterns from other doctors, less personal support or mentoring, a lack of senior female surgeons as role models, less respect or a different level of responsiveness from the medical team, and bias against pregnancy and family responsibilities.

Tellingly, despite legal obligations to report such behaviour, there are only two reported cases before legal boards involving registered health practioners acting inappropriately towards colleagues.

"I don't think there's been an adequete complaints mechanism," said Knowles.

The medical profession in Australia is not alone in these long-held institutional attitudes. Similar research exists in studies overseas, and studies into the legal professional say half of all female lawyers report discrimination. One in four report sexual harassment. But for now the spotlight is on the peak body for surgeons to take the lead.

"It's not something that's going to change overnight, but it is something the college needs to commit to," said Knowles.

For the first time the doors of the elite insitution that is the College of Surgeons is open to anyone with experience of abuse or harassment to submit before July 20.