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Sexual Harassment: why boys need to become men

By Matthew Lennon*

Prevention: to eliminate the cause of complication at its origin. This is the primary aim of medical practice, the secondary measure being symptomatic treatment. Safe and effective reporting systems address the presence of sexual harassment, but it is at a deeper cultural level where prevention may be achieved.

Dr Gabrielle McMullen sparked debate last month when she spoke about sexual harassment in the profession and the failings of professional bodies.

Her advice to junior doctors “to accept sexual advances” has been rejected by both the AMA and AMSA, but the outcry she sparked has catalysed the conversation on reporting structures within the medical field.

Medicine is strictly hierarchical, and each member of the hierarchy assesses those below them.

The power granted by the hierarchy provides opportunities for the exploitation and bullying of more junior colleagues. Moreover, in the cases of such misconduct, every incident of reporting carries an intrinsic career risk.

Dealing with these inherent reporting problems is one step to addressing sexual harassment.

However, at a more fundamental level, at a preventive level, lies the issue of culture, in particular a culture of the sexualisation and objectification of women – a “boys” culture.

For any human behaviour, it is the dominant culture that informs an individual’s more basic instincts, allowing them discern right and wrong.

In “the boys” culture, successful sexual endeavours are met with a quiet laugh or congratulatory pat; your status is elevated and self-esteem balloons. You are told that your sexual successes are the measure of a man.

It is precisely this sort of validation that perpetuates workplace sexual harassment.

The egocentric desire for personal gratification and group approval means that women, rather than being considered human persons to respect, are reduced to mere means to a personal ends.

Whereas “boys” are motivated by self-interest and gratification, men are driven by principle.

This is why we need “the boys” culture to become “the men” culture – a culture in which it is the duty of every man to recognise the dignity of every woman; in which harassing women into sexual situations is not met with congratulations, but rather vociferous castigation.

In the public discourse on this issue, the voice of men has been quiet. This needs to change.

Late last year, a video of a speech Emma Watson delivered to the UN went viral.

She launched the “HeforShe” campaign in which she called for men to stand up and speak out for gender equality, pointing out that gender stereotypes pigeon-hole men as much as they do women.

The 2013 Male Champions for Change initiative, in which 21 leading Australian CEOs spoke out for women in the workplace, was an important instance of male voices speaking clearly on the issue, for there is no-one who could better change the behaviours of men than men themselves.

If we want to ameliorate and rectify wrongs we need effective and accessible reporting systems.

But if we genuinely want to have equity in the medical profession we need a change in our culture.

We need our boys to become men.

* Matthew Lennon is a medical student from the University of New South Wales, and is Policy Officer for AMSA for 2015. Follow on Twitter @mattjlennon.