Dr Gabrielle McMullin has drawn considerable criticism for her recommendation that female surgeons should simply endure sexual harassment by male colleagues rather than report it, because the profession’s structure provides no support or protection for complainants. But in doing so, the Sydney surgeon has shone a light on ways in which cultures of sexism and silence can remain active within powerful sectors, especially those where networks and reputations play a significant role in career opportunities.

Like other forms of sexual abuse, sexual harassment is about power — particularly, an imbalance of power between the perpetrator and the victim. But it is also about the norms that operate within groups, particularly groups of men engaged professionally with one another. They may be surgeons, or soldiers, or software developers, but wherever such groups encounter diversity of any kind, the reaction is usually defensive, if not hostile, and designed to make those perceived as “other” as uncomfortable as possible. And it occurs despite the fact that, individually, members of the group would be distressed to think their wives, their sisters, their daughters were being subjected to such behaviour,

This is behaviour that men alone can change. Legislation can protect workers and courts can enforce the law, but only genuine cultural change can make workplaces as welcoming as they should be, and therefore as productive as they can be. In the now justifiably famous words of Chief of Army David Morrison, “the standard you walk past is the standard you accept”. All men must make their disapproval clear to the minority of men who seek to exploit women in the workplace.

Peter Fray

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