Intended for healthcare professionals

Feature Sexual Harassment

Operate with respect: how Australia is confronting sexual harassment of trainees

BMJ 2016; 354 doi: (Published 01 September 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;354:i4210
  1. Amy Coopes, freelance journalist, Sydney, Australia
  1. coopesafp{at}

A Sydney doctor’s decision to publicise widespread sexual harassment in surgery has led the profession to take steps to change the culture, Amy Coopes reports


It has been a year since Gabrielle McMullin’s claims of rampant sexual harassment of trainees rocked Australia’s college of surgeons and triggered an unprecedented drive for cultural change across the medical profession.

McMullin, a vascular surgeon, stunned physicians and the public with a frank interview given on International Women’s Day in which she described an entrenched culture of sexism within the surgical profession and impunity for perpetrators of harassment and abuse.1

Relating the story of a neurosurgical trainee2 who was unable to find work in the public system after taking legal action against a senior surgeon for propositioning her for sex, McMullin made headlines by claiming that the trainee would have been better off agreeing to have sex.

The remarks sparked a firestorm in the press, unleashing a wave3 4 of similar stories that thrust the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (RACS), which represents surgeons in Australia and New Zealand, and medicine more broadly into the spotlight.

“The reason it was such a huge story is that it is such a huge problem,” said McMullin.

Endemic bullying and discrimination

The college appointed an expert advisory group to examine the scope of the problem and find solutions.5 A comprehensive internal inquiry was launched, inviting surgeons, trainees, and international medical graduates to participate in an anonymous survey, online forum, and face-to-face interviews.

More than 3500 people came forward to share their experiences,6 which were published in September 2015. They detailed a culture of endemic bullying, discrimination, and sexual harassment where power …

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