AUSTRALIA echoed last week with calls for an end to violence against women and dismantling of the power structures that enable it.
The stories coming out of Canberra in recent weeks have revealed a toxic culture, where bullying is rife and young women are seen as disposable commodities, quickly discarded once they have outlived their usefulness in favour of the next fresh-faced recruit.
It’s not just the national capital, of course, and nor is it new. “I was protesting about this in the 1970s,” I heard a woman say at one of the marches last week.
This is a time of reckoning for workplaces and organisations around the country.
At least I hope it is. It would be hard to accept the return to business as usual we have seen so many times before.
The health system is certainly not immune to these kinds of allegations. No system is. A number of senior doctors have been accused in recent years of offences ranging from sending their junior colleagues unsolicited sexual messages to outright assault.
Those cases create headlines, but the reality is they are probably the tip of the iceberg. Those subjected to these behaviours rarely make a complaint.
Most women I know have been sexually harassed at work, but I can’t think of any who have taken action against the perpetrator. I certainly haven’t.
The reasons for that are complex, but high on the list has to be the knowledge that we are likely to suffer more than the perpetrator if we try to do anything about it.
“There is little doubt of the perception among medical students and trainees that complaining [about sexual harassment] can damage a career,” two (male) surgeons wrote in the MJA in 2015.
The hierarchy was seen as too powerful, they went on, noting the “perceived disconnection between organisations’ stated values and their responses in individual cases of alleged abuse”.
Perhaps things have improved since then, although a 2018 paper, also in the MJA, stated unprofessional behaviour in general was sufficiently widespread in the Australian health system it could be considered endemic.
The researchers cited numerous studies showing high levels of bullying and harassment across the sector. An Australasian College for Emergency Medicine member survey, for example, found 34% of respondents had experienced bullying and 6% sexual harassment.
The range of behaviours studied in the 2018 MJA article was broad, from incivility to assault, and not necessarily sexual in nature, but it does raise broader questions about the culture of the health system.
A 2020 survey conducted by the same researchers found more than 90% of hospital staff had experienced unprofessional behaviour at work, 39% on a daily basis.
Just under 15% reported experiencing extreme behaviours such as assault.
“Tolerance for low level poor behaviour may be an enabler for more serious misbehaviour that endangers staff wellbeing and patient safety,” the researchers wrote.
If we are really going to do something about violence against women across all sectors of our society, addressing cultures where bullying is tolerated will need to be part of it.
Not all men assault or harass women. This is true.
But the statement is also a deflection, an evasion of responsibility. The onus is absolutely on all men to help build a new kind of society where women don’t live in fear.
That means calling out bad behaviour when you see it. It means raising boys who truly understand what consent means. And sometimes it means having the courage to speak up against your colleagues.
Jane McCredie is a science, health and medicine writer based in Sydney.
National sexual assault support
1800 RESPECT: National sexual assault, domestic family violence counselling service. Operates 24 hours/7 days a week.
Phone: 1800 737 732
Blue Knot Foundation: For adults with experiences of childhood trauma including child sexual abuse. Operates 9am-5pm Monday-Sunday.
Phone: 1300 657 380
Bravehearts: For those wanting information or support relating to child sexual assault and exploitation. Operates 8:30am to 4:30pm Monday to Friday.
Phone: 1800 272 831
IF YOU ARE IN IMMEDIATE DANGER, PLEASE CALL 000
The statements or opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the authors and do not represent the official policy of the AMA, the MJA or InSight+ unless so stated.