By: Tess Nichol

Helen’s story

A young doctor says she felt used after a senior doctor sent her sexually suggestive messages during their friendship, then abruptly ended contact with her when she was unwilling to sleep with him.

Helen* was in her early 20s and in the first two years of her career in a South Island hospital, and he was nearly twice her age. Although he wasn’t her direct boss, during certain shifts she had to report to him.

The Herald has not named the hospital to protect her privacy.

Helen believes she is one of several younger women the man struck up such a friendship with after meeting them through work.

The pair would spend large amounts of time talking and hanging out. He would sometimes send her inappropriate text messages saying he wanted to see her naked or have sex with her – things she brushed off at the time because she enjoyed spending time with him.

“I didn’t mind if every now and then he did something flirty or stupid … if it was for a friendship as well,” she said.

The man eventually ended up in a relationship and after that stopped messaging Helen or wanting to spend time with her, which she found upsetting.

“It became very obvious I wouldn’t sleep with him so he found someone who would.

“Almost immediately he stopped texting me, he stopped seeing me. It made me realise in hindsight the entire friendship was trying to get me naked.”

Shortly after their friendship ended, in November last year, a different doctor at the same hospital was independently investigated after an anonymous tip, which a spokeswoman for the district health board (DHB) said was found to be unsubstantiated.

While the investigation didn’t affect her directly, Helen said it prompted friends to talk to her about her own situation, making her consider for the first time whether she was a victim.

She still isn’t sure.

Helen thinks she’s unusual in feeling so ambivalent about the senior doctor’s behaviour and that other women in the same situation likely would have filed a complaint against him, something she never did.

She worried the same situation would play out again with other young female doctors, who would perhaps feel more upset by his behaviour than she had been.

Helen said she regularly ignored sexist or sexual remarks from senior colleagues because she felt kicking up a fuss was likely to hinder her career.

“If I was super-feminist I would probably once a fortnight have something to report that was harassing or highly inappropriate.”

The DHB says there is a clear policy around harassment and bullying of any kind and it “did not accept or condone this behaviour in our workplaces”.

Like many young doctors, Helen is intensely ambitious.

“To put up with sexual harassment for the rest of my life to [achieve my career goals], it’s a choice I’m willing to make. And it’s sad I have to make it.”

Sarah’s story

Sarah* was a junior doctor when a terrifying incident with a patient during her night shift shook her confidence badly.

Now a registrar, Sarah said the harassment occurred as she carried out a routine blood pressure check at an Auckland hospital last year.

At first it wasn’t so different from the many other times Sarah had withstood sexually inappropriate comments, but this time she was alone and it was the middle of the night.

Her patient began to make repeated inappropriate comments about her looks, despite her attempts to ignore or defuse the situation.

As she took his blood pressure the man said he could see down her top and was resisting reaching over and grabbing her.

“I felt like I had to finish what I was doing and complete everything in one go so I wouldn’t have to go back and see him again.”

Rattled, she left the room as soon as possible, realising afterward she’d left behind equipment she should have taken with her.

“When I went back in he was masturbating, and I just kind of panicked,” she said.

“It was really awful and upsetting and I just went and cried for half an hour.”

Sarah, who would not name the DHB she was working at for fear of being identified, said she didn’t tell anyone at the time because she didn’t want to burden her colleagues.

“Afterwards I struggled with the rest of my night, I felt really vulnerable.”

Her feeling of vulnerability stemmed from not knowing what to do or how to deal with what happened.

“I knew I should at some point say ‘that’s not appropriate’ and you get some teaching about limit-setting and boundaries, but usually it’s from the point of view from not getting in that situation in the first place.”

An industry-wide culture of putting up and shutting up made her feel like she’d be perceived as weak if she complained, so she never reported what happened.

“It’s like ‘that’s your job, you have to put up with it’. That needs to change,” she said.

“At the moment it’s like everything is kept hidden.”

Sarah said the incident was the worst she had experienced and stayed with her for months.

However, low-level harassment was part of the day-to-day life of a female doctor, she said.

“Pretty much all the female doctors and nurses and other healthcare professionals experience this low level of just sexually inappropriate conversation.

“Commenting on clothing or how you look with an implication [where it’s] difficult to say to stop. Like if you say ‘that’s inappropriate’ that’s over the top.”

Miranda’s story

Miranda* is in her late 20s and has been a doctor for four years.

Echoing the sentiments of the other women the Herald spoke to, she said instances of sexually inappropriate behaviour by both patients and senior colleagues were common.

Earlier this year a senior clinician was dismissed for sexual harassment at the Auckland hospital she was working at.

Miranda said the Auckland District Health Board (ADHB) did not deal openly with the investigation, the man’s subsequent firing and the fallout that followed.

“All of a sudden he went missing and no one knew why. And then we just got told one day he wasn’t coming back.”

When she asked managers about what happened they refused to discuss it with her, while alluding to the nature of his dismissal.

“I said ‘what is happening here?”; everyone was like ‘no, no, no, you don’t want to tarnish his reputation because we don’t know what happened’.”

She felt told off, and that it was not an appropriate response from management, given the man had been dismissed following an investigation.

She also felt that approach contributed to a culture of silence surrounding sexual harassment complaints.

The only reason staff knew more detail was because of whisper networks within the hospital, Miranda said.

After questions from the Herald, ADHB confirmed a senior clinician was dismissed for sexual harassment earlier this year, but did not comment further on the specifics of the case.

Chief HR officer Fiona Michel disputed the claim the DHB and management hadn’t dealt with the case appropriately, saying there was a strong commitment to stamping out bullying behaviour at ADHB hospitals.

“Unacceptable behaviour such as sexual harassment does not happen very often in our workforce, but we are committed to making it okay to talk about unacceptable behaviour.

“We have not been afraid to terminate employment where warranted, and to provide feedback and coaching where this is the most appropriate outcome.

“People who are unwilling to live our values don’t have a place at Auckland DHB.”

Complaints and dismissals

According to information released to the Herald under the Official Information Act, the man’s dismissal was the ADHB’s fourth job loss relating to sexual harassment since 2016.

Deborah Powell from the New Zealand Resident Doctors’ Association. Photo / NZRDA

Last year three complaints about staff-on-staff sexual harassment were made and one person was dismissed.

In 2016 one person was dismissed and another resigned following complaints, and two more complaints were made but no outcome was recorded.

From 2013 to 2015, one sexual harassment complaint was recorded per year. No outcome was recorded in 2013 or 2015. In 2014 a written warning was given.

Miranda believed people were so scared to speak that those who did only represented the tip of the iceberg.

“I don’t even think we’re capturing the actual issue. I don’t think we’re coming close to establishing how big an issue this is.”

Female staff thought putting up with a certain amount of sexual harassment was part and parcel of being a female doctor, she said.

“It’s not f…ing part of the job. It’s not meant to be.”

*Names have been changed

Harassment in the medical world

  • One in 10 junior doctors had witnessed or experienced sexual harassment while on the job in the past year.
  • 31 complaints involving sexual harassment or unwanted sexual behaviour were made across 18 of NZ’s 20 DHBS between 2013 and 2017.
  • 13 complaints were substantiated.
  • Three DHB staffers were fired.
  • Two left their jobs.
  • Four were given written warnings.

Auckland District Health Board

The district health board confirmed a senior clinician was dismissed for sexual harassment after a case earlier this year. It was the ADHB’s fourth job loss relating to sexual harassment since 2016.

Last year three complaints about staff-on-staff sexual harassment were made and one person was dismissed. In 2016 one person was dismissed and another resigned following complaints, and two more complaints were made but no outcome was recorded.

Waikato Hospital

Three sexual assault complaints by staff against other staff members were made between 2013 and 2017, two of which were upheld. One person resigned as a result and another left at the end of a fixed-term contract. The DHB said they would not rehire him.

In March investigations into alleged sexual harassment and bullying ended with the hospital saying it could not substantiate the complaints.

However, a report into the allegations by a senior female clinician against a senior male clinician said the man had a “tactile approach to colleagues” and had caused distress.

Tauranga Hospital

Since 2013 at least two nurses who felt mistreated have reportedly taken their own lives, and a third nurse’s suspected suicide is being investigated by the Coroner.

Capital and Coast DHB

Three complaints involving unwanted sexual behaviour were made between 2013 and 2017, but information about whether or not the claims were substantiated and any outcomes was not provided.

Source: NZ Herald

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