Things we don’t say or do in medicine anymore

‘…in a multiple hour hernia repair surgery, I was told that since I am the only female in the room that it is my job to hold the patient’s testicles throughout the entirety of the procedure’. In a 2018 article published by an anonymous female physician, she said she was squeezed by the cheeks, kissed and endured other forms of unsolicited touching, and inappropriate sexual advances by consultants as a medical student.

She called for other doctors to speak out about sexual harassment in her article, but there was a poor online response from only four male doctors. Among their public comments were the inappropriate ‘joke’ – ‘Sorry but what ‘cheeks’ are we talking about?’, and ‘My opportunities have been gazumped by confident flirtatious female colleagues’. Another doctor wrote: ‘There is a large contingent of female grads coming out of Med Schools now, that enter the workforce with girded loins and judging everything through an irritating gender lens – sometimes even infantilised by ‘trigger alerts’.

The thread continued on the topic of women doctors not pulling their weight and taking time off work to care for their children with the comment ‘Clearly the biological imperative of who bears the children is never going to go away, so we just have to deal with it.’  The final response to the story was about ‘standing up for yourself’ with this conclusion ‘…, when it comes to being harassed, one has to learn to stand firm, which is something no-one else can do, or be, for another’.

Let’s be clear, sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination are unlawful and should never be tolerated by anyone. Despite this, we continue to hear stories of unacceptable behaviors by doctors, which may be why subtle repetitive forms of everyday bias are commonly overlooked in medical workplaces. Perhaps perceived as too small or stupid to waste precious time on, doctors may let them pass.

At other times, there is no question when unacceptable comments overstep the mark, such as in the anecdotal comments above from the four male doctors, which ignore what the medical and other literature tells us about the prevalence of sexism in medical workplaces. Repetitive everyday sexism is sometimes difficult to call out. Sometimes there is ‘eye rolling’ when women speak, or we may hear ‘she talks too much’ when the reality is that women are often less likely to dominate workplace discussions as much as men because fewer women holdleadership roles or chair meetings.

Many  also report being repeatedly ignored, dismissed or misconstrued, such as what happened to the anonymous female physician writing on an important topic.

We can no longer ignore the medical literature on the resulting high rates of stress, depression and suicidal ideation amongst women doctors, and the disproportionate lack of women in medical leadership roles, although females represent over 50% of the medical cohort in many countries.

It’s time for the medical profession to consider Duke University’s campaign on ‘Things You Don’t Say’, and encourage doctors and medical students to identify inappropriate comments in everyday language which stereotype and discriminate against both women and men based on gender, age, sexuality, culture, religion or disability.

Will you call out major and minor harmful comments and behaviours? Will you stand firm and can you do that for one another?

Clinical Professor Leanne Rowe

Medical practitioner and author of:

‘Every Doctor: Healthier Doctors = Healthier Patients’

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