Female doctors not helped by AHPRA’s unrealistic ‘speak up on sexism’ advice

Doctors health

By Julie Lambert

12 Jul 2021

The Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) has released a new position statement advising health practitioners and the public to call out sexual harassment and disrespectful behaviour by registered health professionals.

In an apparent reference to revelations of mistreatment of women in Parliament House, the statement says Australia’s “national conversation about sexism, sexual harassment and gendered violence” is an important step towards building a culture of respect.

“Practitioners must always treat patients, consumers, students, employees and colleagues with respect. They must always communicate professionally and respectfully with and about others, including when using social media,” the statement says.

“There is no place for sexism, sexual harassment or gendered violence in healthcare. AHPRA and National Boards explicitly condemn this behaviour by registered health practitioners,” it says.

“By speaking up about and addressing disrespectful behaviour and unprofessional conduct, we can all help build a culture of respect in healthcare and contribute to safer care.”

Despite the mention of colleagues, women doctors were quick to note that the statement offers little comfort for fellow practitioners who suffer sexism, gender inequity and harassment in the workplace.

“This document I think has focused on sexism and sexual harassment of consumers,” said Dr Swati Mukherjee, an interventional cardiologist in Melbourne.

“I think it falls a bit short for women in medicine.  Junior doctors’ careers are often dependent on the senior doctors.  They need a bit more support than the current statement alone to be able to raise these difficult issues without fear of reprisal.”

Although the national boards are working on ways to elevate the importance of equity in the workplace, women doctors still felt like a minority in certain specialties and as they advance to senior roles, she said.

Dr Mukherjee said she thought there was a place for the medical colleges to guide and enforce policies to support women practitioners in the health system.

“The colleges have a huge say because they accredit training centres for training positions, so a college should be able to say if you don’t do this you don’t get accredited.”


Sydney neurologist Dr Kate Ahmad said it was not realistic simply to tell people not to tolerate sexual harassment without putting adequate protections in place.

“To say, if you’re an intern or a registrar and if your boss is sexually harassing you, you should tell people …. That’s going to go very poorly for the whistle blower. You have try to really involve the executive of the hospital to put processes in place which are protective.”

Under an anonymous reporting system, for instance, an alleged offender could be made aware of an allegation and possibly asked to complete a training module, but no further action would be taken unless there was another complaint, she said.

“It is a pattern of behaviour with most of these people.  So if they are reported multiple times it is an indication that something needs to be done.”

Broader cultural change is needed to address issues of subconscious and implied sexism in medicine which is difficult to prove – such as talking over women, mansplaining, elevating men over better qualified women, Dr Ahmad added.

The AHPRA statement advises that concerns about disrespectful behaviour by a health practitioner “can often be handled locally” with the practitioner or their employer.

It encourages reporting to AHPRA of sexual harassment, which it defines as unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that makes a person feel offended, humiliated and/or intimidated and which constitutes unprofessional conduct.

Further up the scale, concerns about sexual misconduct may require a mandatory notification by employers or registered practitioners, it says.

Dr Mukherjee said junior doctors would once laugh off or ignore sexist remarks or behaviour from senior male colleagues. Now, as a senior doctor, she at least is more inclined to have a quiet word.

“Often some doctors might think they are making a harmless joke; but it can be intimidating for juniors.”

When asked how she would respond if she saw unacceptable behaviour by a colleague, Dr Mukherjee said she would take them aside and say, “You might think it’s harmless, but it’s not like that for the person on the other side.”

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