Surgeons body to set up anti-bullying team after harassment claims

Surgeons in Chinese hospital
‘Bullying and harassment must be notified and must be investigated,’ RACS president Michael Grigg said. Photograph: Fu Zhiyong/Imaginechina

The Royal Australasian College of Surgeons has recruited a former health minister to establish an advisory group on bullying and harassment following claims of widespread sexual harassment in the profession.

It comes five days after Sydney surgeon Gabrielle McMullin made national headlines by saying that if a female surgeon is propositioned by a male colleague, “the safest thing to do in terms of your career is to comply with the request”.

RACS announced the advisory body on Thursday, just hours after neurosurgeon Caroline Tan, who was almost failed out of her training at Monash Medical Centre after filing a sexual harassment complaint against a senior colleague, said it was necessary.

In a statement, RACS president Michael Grigg said there was “no denying” that bullying and harassment occurred and the advisory group would “provide a way forward” to eliminate it.

“Bullying and harassment must be notified and must be investigated,” Grigg said. “This is fundamental to correcting behaviour and ensuring inappropriate decisions or actions are addressed.”

The group will be headed by former Kennett government health minister and current chairman of Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital, Rob Knowles, with Oxfam chief executive and former Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner Dr Helen Szoke as deputy.

Grigg said it would review RACS’s current policies, establish a reporting framework for bullying and harassment and address the gender balance.

Tan told Fairfax Media on Thursday that the college was an “Anglo-Saxon old boys’ club” and the problem was “not going away”

Tan was a third-year surgical registrar when she was propositioned by Chris Xenos, her supervising surgeon, at a private consulting room adjacent to the hospital on 15 February 2005.

According to a 2008 decision of the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, which found in her favour, Tan’s previously good assessment results plummeted after she made a complaint to a senior surgeon.

Tan gave evidence that she had visited Xenos’ rooms at his request to go over some neurosurgery topics but when she arrived he kissed her, touched her breast and propositioned her for oral sex.

She was awarded $100,000 in damages by Vcat but has never been able to secure a position at a public hospital. She now runs a private neurosurgery practice in Melbourne.

McMullin used Tan’s case as a warning to other young women about the career risk in reporting sexual assault, telling the ABC on Friday that “realistically, she would have been much better to have given him a blowjob on that night”.