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Say no to all-male panels – change the culture of bullying and harassment

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Tackling bullying and harassment in the medical profession is a long-term project, but one simple change could be made straight away – get rid of all-male panels, AMA Doctor in Training of the Year Dr Ruth Mitchell says.

Dr Mitchell made the call during a policy session at National Conference.

“There are things we can do in the here and now. If you say no to all-male panels, you will encourage diversity,” Dr Mitchell said.

Dr Mitchell, who won the DIT award for her work on tackling bullying and harassment, said leadership on the issue was hard and expensive.

She said more must be done to engage bystanders, who witnessed bad behaviours and did not know how to respond.

“Ask myself – when I walk into a room, do I bring peace? Do I make the room a safer place?” she said.

Dr Mitchell said it was particularly troubling that latest survey results of doctors in training showed a rise in the number reporting that they had experienced bullying, discrimination or harassment in the past six months.

Mr Phil Truskett, the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons President, said more training was needed for medical professionals, who often did not know how to give feedback to trainee doctors in a constructive and respectful way.

Some surgeons still did not see that bullying and harassment were taking place and were critical of the apology made by RACS last year, he said.

“The more senior colleagues, very eminent colleagues, thought we had thrown the baby out with the bathwater with the apology,” Mr Truskett said.

“The reality was, it was a problem that they could not recognise.”

Barrister Chris Ronalds SC said it was possible to change the culture, saying that when she joined the Bar, she was one of six women.

“The NSW Bar is a very different world than it was 25 years ago. Sexual harassment was rife and so was daily sexism and racism,” Ms Ronalds said.

“Judges used to bully and hound women practitioners and it was considered acceptable, as the natural order of things.

“I don’t know why we were 25 years ahead of you (the medical profession) but change can happen.”

The panel said doctors needed confidence that the system would support them if they reported an issue, and that there were real and appropriate consequences for inappropriate behaviour.

Ms Ronalds said that in any profession, internal complaint mechanisms were only successful if there was a culture that supported them.

“(There is) widespread under-reporting of inappropriate conduct (in the medical profession) for two main reasons – a fear of victimisation and an acceptance that nothing effective will be done, so there is no point in raising it,” she said.

Maria Hawthorne