DOCTOR: Women trainees are reluctant to report sexual harassment at Australian medical colleges

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A senior Australian doctor says it’s time to act against sexual discrimination and bullying in medical training.

According to the author of a perspective in the Medical Journal of Australia, changing policies and guidelines will not be enough to stamp out the sexual harassment of female medical trainees. The current design of medical education needs to be changed.

Merrilyn Walton, professor of medical education at the University of Sydney, says the culture of training reinforces to students the need to maintain the status quo, to not complain, to conform and be complacent.

And the “legalistic framework for managing complaints” in which there are severe consequences for the whistleblower, also mean a reluctance to report.

Women slightly outnumber men on entering Australian medical schools. Out of 14,384 domestic medical students enrolled in medicine in 2014, 51.3% were women.

But by the time the women complete training, significant gender imbalances emerge. Only in the specialties of palliative medicine and sexual health are there be more women than men.

This chart shows how men dominate:

Only 10% of surgeons in Australia are female.

Walton says it’s important to acknowledge the differences in the way men and women learn.

“Women may be at a disadvantage – their learning approaches and styles may not be as suited to the opportunistic supervision learning method used in hospitals that requires an assertive personality and a ‘can do’ attitude that are not necessarily the best for patient care, but are best for progress in specialty training,” Professor Walton writes.

“A failure to address the design of medical education will only maintain the status quo and perpetuate discrimination against women in medical training.

“Acknowledging the powerful influence of supervisors on learning outcomes for trainees is crucial.

“Allowing a supervisor who is known to be sexist or discriminatory to teach brings into question the sincerity of a college in dealing with bad behaviour. Colleges need to have zero tolerance for harassment and discrimination.”

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