Sexual harassment of young doctors 'rife'

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
Young female doctors say they regularly endure sexual harassment while on the job but hardly anyone is reporting it, out of fear it will hurt or even end their careers.

The New Zealand Resident Doctor's Association (NZRDA) believes the problem of sexual harassment is so widespread and under reported that intervention is needed.

The union is launching an investigation into sexual harassment in the profession, following its 2015 survey showing 10 per cent of the 3000 resident (junior) doctors who responded had experienced or witnessed sexual harassment at work in the preceding year.

Half had witnessed bullying.

In one case earlier this year, the Auckland District Health Board confirmed that a senior clinician was dismissed for sexual harassment.

The Weekend Herald spoke to a number of women about their experiences in medicine.

• One doctor said she was left feeling used following an extended friendship with a senior colleague, who sent her sexually suggestive texts but ended contact with her after she was unwilling to sleep with him.

• Another said she felt fobbed off for asking questions about a senior doctor who was dismissed from his job following sexual harassment complaints.

• One doctor said she felt unable to seek support after a patient joked about grabbing her and later masturbated in front of her.

All spoke of a culture of silence in the profession and the pressure they felt not to complain about sexual harassment.

None were willing to be named for fear of repercussions, and some were so afraid of being identified by employers they would not speak on the record about their specific experiences.

The problem with sexual harassment in medicine follows similar reporting of the issue within the legal profession in New Zealand.

One in five lawyers reported they had been sexually harassed according to an examination of the legal fraternity by the New Zealand Law Society after a series of scandals hit the country's top law firms.

The issues follow the global #MeToo movement, which came after several women publicly accused movie boss Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment.

One senior doctor who said despite being well-established in her career she was still terrified of pushback from speaking out.

"Many of us have stories that would make your skin crawl, but we are silenced," she said.

"The price we pay by speaking up is far too high."

According to data provided to the Weekend Herald under the Official Information Act, only 31 complaints involving sexual harassment or unwanted sexual attention were laid at 18 of the country's 20 DHBs between 2013 and 2017, of which 13 were substantiated.

As a result, three DHB staff were fired, two resigned and four were given a written warning.

In response to Herald queries about its case, the ADHB said it showed there were serious consequences for inappropriate behaviour, and there was a strong commitment to stamping out bullying behaviour at its hospitals.

But a female doctor for the ADHB said she felt people were scared to speak up about harassment, and the way management at the hospital dealt with the man's sacking reinforced that.

"I said 'what is happening here?', everyone was like 'no, no, no, you don't want to tarnish his reputation because we don't know what happened'."

In another case, which wasn't reported, Helen*, a young doctor working in the South Island said she felt used following a friendship with a senior doctor nearly twice her age.

Throughout their friendship he would sometimes make inappropriate comments, saying he wanted to sleep with her or see her naked.

She brushed them off, and when he got a girlfriend, he cut her out of his life entirely.

"It made me realise in hindsight the entire friendship was trying to get me naked."

She believed a formal complaint wasn't worth the hit her career could take to speak up.

"To put up with sexual harassment for the rest of my life to [achieve my career goals], it's a choice I'm willing to make. And it's sad I have to make it."

Sarah* was working in Auckland when a routine check on a patient escalated to him joking about grabbing her and, finally, masturbating in front of her.

Low-level harassment was part of the day to day life of a female doctor, she said.

"Pretty much all the female doctors and nurses and other healthcare professionals experience this low level of just sexually inappropriate conversation.

"Commenting on clothing or how you look with an implication [where it's] difficult to say to stop. Like if you say 'that's inappropriate' that's over the top."

As part of a plan to address the reluctance to speak up about harassment, the NZRDA wants to get rid of confidential references for junior doctors seeking placements.

Confidential references give senior doctors the power to give anonymous reviews, meaning residents may never know if the reason they missed out on a placement was because a senior doctor gave them negative feedback.

"The fear of retribution is very deeply, deeply embedded in resident doctors. It's an immense barrier to them being able to raise these sorts of issues," NZRDA national secretary Deborah Powell said.

The union was expecting "an avalanche" of responses when it began looking into the issue further.

DHBs said they had strong policies regarding bullying and inappropriate behaviour in the workplace, and all complaints were taken seriously.

Last month the Weekend Herald revealed that no disciplinary action had been taken in half of bullying and harassment cases at DHBs in 2016 and no cases resulted in dismissal.

This followed an initial campaign to change bullying cultures in hospitals.

RNZ last month reported that since 2013, at least two nurses who felt mistreated at Tauranga Hospital had taken their own lives, and a third nurse's suspected suicide was being investigated by the Coroner.

In March this year, investigations into alleged sexual harassment and bullying at Waikato Hospital ended with the hospital saying it could not substantiate the complaints.

However, a report into the allegations by a senior female clinician against a senior male clinician said the man had a "tactile approach to colleagues" and had caused distress.

*Name changed to protect privacy.

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