Sexual harassment in medicine – your right to feel safe at work

16 February 2022

The #MeToo movement and the speaking out by Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins including their recent National Press Club presentations have put a spotlight on the topic of sexual harassment. Unfortunately, sexual harassment and sexual assault occur in medical workplaces too.

AMA Victoria takes a strong stance against sexual harassment through workplace relations and advocacy work. Members, we are here to support you if you experience sexual harassment in the workplace.

What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination. It may consist of an isolated incident experienced by an individual or a pattern of behaviour that is entrenched in the cultural practices of the workplace. In Victoria, employers have a legal and ethical responsibility to create workplace cultures that do not tolerate sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment is an unwelcome sexual advance or unwelcome request for sexual favours. It involves behaviour to which a reasonable person would have anticipated the possibility that the person harassed would be offended, humiliated or intimidated. Sexual harassment can be physical, spoken or written.

It can include:

Sexual harassment in the workplace can happen at work, or at work-related events, between people sharing the same workplace, or between colleagues outside of work.

What to do if you are sexually harassed

When you experience sexual harassment, it is common to wonder if you are over-reacting or imaging the situation, especially if the behaviour is by someone you respect. However, if a behaviour is making you feel uncomfortable, it is not appropriate or acceptable for that behaviour to continue.

If you feel safe and comfortable doing so, tell the other person or persons you object to their behaviour and ask that it stop. Your feedback provides an opportunity for the person to change their actions. For example, if the behaviour involves touching, even in a non-sexual way, it is appropriate to ask for your personal space to be respected.

It is a good idea to keep a diary recording the behaviour and any requests that you make for the behaviour to stop. Documentation is useful evidence if you need to take the situation further. Having the documentation date-stamped (for example, by generating emails to yourself) will add weight. Always use your personal email account for these types of records, not your workplace account.

The process of dealing with sexual harassment is usually very distressing. Initially, you may not believe that it is really happening to you and doubt yourself. It can be helpful to have a confidential discussion about what is happening with someone you trust who is outside the situation. This is a good time to phone AMA Victoria or the Peer Support Service and describe what is happening. The AMA Victoria Workplace Relations Unit staff are well equipped to also provide advice about the best approach to managing the situation and at what stage to lodge a formal complaint to your employer. The Peer Support Service volunteers will offer support and help you clarify in your own mind what you want to do next. Another source of support and advice is the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission.

Employers should have policies describing standards of behaviour expected in the workplace, including procedures to resolve complaints. They may have specific procedures to address complaints of sexual harassment and discrimination. Obtain a copy of the relevant policy and procedure from your employer. Employers are expected to address complaints, applying these procedures to work toward a successful resolution. If the behaviour continues (despite your requests for it to stop), it is time to consider making a formal complaint in accordance with your employer’s procedures. You can request to have a support person with you in any meetings in the workplace. As a member of AMA Victoria, a staff member from the Workplace Relations Unit can be your support person.

If you are dissatisfied with your employer’s response, you can lodge a complaint with the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission.

At all stages of the process of dealing with sexual harassment, it is important to focus on your own wellbeing. If you need some time away from work, see your own GP for a medical certificate. Maximise your self-care activities including exercise, good nutrition and adequate sleep. Also spend time doing things you enjoy and are relaxing to help manage stress levels. Identify someone you can talk to about how you are feeling. Consider a referral for some counselling sessions with a psychologist. Remember, you have a right to feel safe at work.

Kay Dunkley
AMA Victoria Coordinator of Doctor Wellbeing


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