Specialist trainees asked inappropriate personal questions in selection interviews


One in five doctors applying for positions on specialist training programs were asked inappropriate questions during selection interviews, including about pregnancy, family planning and marital status, new findings show.

The Royal Australasian College of Physicians Pulse Survey Report outlines the findings of its survey of 512 doctors (58% female) who were interviewed for basic and advanced specialist training positions in 2019.

Of those, 86% received an offer for a training position in 2020, while 12% didn’t receive an offer and 2% were waiting to hear at the time they were surveyed.

The report shows that 9% (46) of applicants felt they were asked inappropriate questions during the interview process: 40% of those said they were asked about pregnancy and family planning, 9.5% were about plans for extended leave, and 9.5% about marital status.

The findings do not provide a breakdown of whether female or male trainees were more likely to be asked such questions.

More generally, one in five applicants surveyed said they had been asked about the following topics during formal and informal interviews: pregnancy/family planning (10%); carers’ responsibilities (8%); plans for extended leave (8%), marital status (7%); race (1%), religion (1%), political views 0.2%, other (6%).

No applicants were asked about their sexual orientation, but one respondent said that they were asked if they wanted to offer a bribe.

The findings come after the AMA Council of Doctors in Training warned in 2018 that basic physician trainees were being asked inappropriate personal questions – typically around whether they were married or planned to start a family – during pre-interviews. Pre-interviews are informal conversations initiated by trainee applicants with a senior consultant who is part of the recruitment process for specialist training program positions.

In response to the latest findings, the RACP recommended the reinforcement of earlier communication that “selection panels should only ask questions that relate to the training position and must not include questions that, even indirectly, relate to pregnancy or family planning”.

Associate Professor Sarah Zaman, an interventional cardiologist at MonashHEART and Monash University, and co-founder of a Women in Cardiology group, said she was not at all surprised by the findings.

“I actually found it optimistic in terms of the proportion [asked about family planning and pregnancy] – I thought it might be higher,” she said. “But I think it is a reflection of how there is still unconscious bias [against women].”

Professor Zaman said women who were asked questions about family planning during either a pre-interview or formal interview were placed in a “catch 22” situation.

“If you refuse to answer, it reflects badly, but if you do answer, it may result in an unconscious bias against you.”

The rigid structure of training programs – with trainees generally contracted to 12-month positions in hospitals – was one of the reasons behind female applicants being asked inappropriate questions, she said.

“It creates all sorts of issues for women who want to take maternity leave during training.”

She said training programs needed to be made far more flexible, with more part-time positions or flexibility to complete a 12-month program over a longer period.

The survey also found that 17% of respondents felt the interview panel was not representative, for reasons including that the panel was made up of the wrong people (eg was male- and white-dominated); because there were few representatives from the networks/regions/variety of hospitals; or because it consisted of doctors and no other healthcare staff.

The RACP recommended that its guidance on how to build representative interview panels for interview be reviewed and promoted.

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