This week, a video by Dr Yumna Moosa exposing the culture of bullying at her institution went viral.
The University of Cape Town has since released a statement in support of Dr Moosa.
In the video, a senior colleague advises Dr Moosa to keep quiet- as a complaint would ruin her career and make her “unemployable”. Unfortunately, this colleague may very well be correct: as evidenced by the case of Australian neurosurgeon Dr Caroline Tan.
In 2008, Dr Tan spoke out about the sexual harassment she experienced at the hands of a fellow neurosurgeon. The accused neurosurgeon claimed that Tan had falsified these accusations as a cover up for her poor clinical performance (sounding familiar yet?). Despite the judge finding in Tan’s favour, she faced fierce criticism for speaking out and has been passed over for positions in at least 8 public and private hospitals. Australian vascular surgeon Dr Gabrielle McMullin has even said that she advises her trainees to comply when approached for sex (by senior colleagues), as this is the “safest thing to do in terms of your career”.
Surgery has a reputation for having a formal hierarchy. At surgery, we are often told to “toughen up”. To “put up or shut up”. To “look for another job if you’re not happy with it”. To “keep your head down, don’t rock the boat”. The nail that sticks out will be hammered down – or as Dr Moosa’s senior colleague so eloquently puts it “No fuck off! This department drinks beer at lunch time!” And so, all the female registrars in the room roar along with laughter when a male colleague bellows out that a woman’s mouth should only be open for one thing nudge nudge, wink wink. The female registrar will then try to tell a cruder joke, swear louder and drink more than her male counterparts – because she doesn’t want to be the old bag who can’t take a joke. The Jewish registrars laugh along with the offensive “jokes”, the Coloured registrars laugh along with the offensive “jokes”… and the world keeps turning.
Others become The Loner referred to in the video, and are often subtly hounded out of the department for being different – as happened to a lovely, soft spoken colleague of mine whose only offense was being a vegetarian?!? (and not subsisting on a diet of coffee, red meat and nicotine). Or perhaps you will be not-so-subtly hounded out of the department, like another colleague who was told by a senior consultant that he would personally see to it that this person never qualifies as a surgeon. This registrar never qualified, by the way. And how do you complain to your boss, if the person who is harassing you IS your boss?
Do I have a solution to the problem? Nope. But there is light at the end of the tunnel. The surgeons in our department are for the most part a friendly, diverse group of people- and we far outnumber the few bigots in our ranks. If we start speaking out against harassment (like Dr Moosa), and lead by example, we just may be able to change surgery’s reputation for the better.