What an interesting week it has been with media coverage of Dr Gabrielle McMullin’s comments about sexism in surgery. My email, phone and social media has not stopped ticking over with all kinds of stories and opinions. Some have made me angry, some have made me sad. Some have made me extremely proud. Like the delightful Dr Ashleigh Witt, I felt the need to put ‘pen’ to ‘paper’ as the storm calms and share some of my thoughts on the scandal that is engulfing surgery.
First of all, I want to be very clear that for all the unsavory characters in medicine, I have been truly lucky to have worked with and for some of the best. Firm but fair, inspiring, excellent doctors and just good people. And blokes. All of my mentors are blokes. Good blokes. And I want to thank them for the doctor and human they’ve helped me to become.
I wish I could leave it at that. And we could all smile and feel warm and fuzzy that there is no problem and that the system works. I’m really sorry, I can’t do that today.
I am both saddened and ashamed to say that I do not know a doctor who hasn’t seen or been on the receiving end of bullying or harassment. Sometimes it’s not too major. Sometimes it’s soul destroying. Sometimes it is life destroying. And nobody complains. It is accepted as the status quo. Something to be endured to get through specialty training and come out the other end of.
Because I am concerned at the impact this may have on my career, I do not want to go into specifics or especially name names. But it has happened to me. Repeatedly. Minor, off the cuff comments that are only said to a woman in medicine. Outright character assassination. Systematic destroying of my confidence, skills and mental health. Gossip, chatter and innuendo. Comments about my physical appearance, the occupancy status of my uterus, high heels or how the perfume I wear is sexy. Or when I’m on call and answer my phone, the voice on the other end of the phone asks why the cardiac surgeon is a woman. Some even ask for my husband. I have been called some shocking names, ostracized and been reduced to tears – which helps perpetuate the myth that I am emotional like all women. Which disqualifies me from being a decent doctor. I rode it out. I laughed it off and rose above it. I succeeded in spite of the detractors. As have many of my colleagues, both men and women and in many specialties.
But all of this is not what is upsetting me the most at the moment. All of the colleges, be it surgery or GP, have harassment policies and they are good policies. The hospitals also have formal mechanisms in place. It is even a part of occupational health and safety law, discrimination law that we have a right to a safe workplace. And that is a good framework. But the overwhelming feeling that has been repeated time and time again both now and before this media storm is that we are scared. We are too scared to complain because despite all of the processes in place, the stories of overt or covert retribution exist. And to a lot of us, it’s not worth that risk.
To those who say bullying, harassment or sexism doesn’t happen, it does. It really does. Please don’t let down the people who have been hurt in some way by saying it isn’t a problem. It undermines the credibility of both sides and will not fix the problem. Please listen to those who have, albeit meekly, raised their hand and said that yes, this has happened to me. Try to understand why they are scared.
We all are fallible. We all have tempers, bad judgment, filthy sense of humour or have had just a crap day. I can say that for me, I have learnt from my own mistakes and from being on the receiving end that I didn’t enjoy that treatment and will not perpetuate it. As I’ve become more senior in the medical hierarchy, the importance of doing so has become even more evident to me. I want to lead by example and part of the reason behind this little blog is to do that.
I just want to be a good doctor. I want to go to work and do the job I enjoy and make a difference to people. I am pretty sure that all doctors feel that way. So let’s be the noble profession we are, that people believe we are and that we want to be. Please don’t let the momentum lag. Let the conversation inspire us all to be better and lead by example. Wouldn’t it be great to one day say we truly snuffed out bullying and harassment?
And finally, to everyone who has been jolted into action, to those who have spoke up, especially in public, thank you. And to Dr Gabrielle McMullin, thanks for being brave and shocking, because you now have everyone’s attention.