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I found the recent reports of sexist behaviour at the LMCs conference to be extremely disappointing but not surprising. It is right that this issue receives attention and an appropriately serious response.
It is unlikely that this is a problem confined to one particular conference or one particular branch of practice.
We must give our full support to anyone who has been the victim of harassment. We must also ensure that we do more, and not take a solely reactive response. This means it is incumbent upon everyone to examine their own behaviour.
Within medicine, as within wider society, there will be those who act in an abusive or inappropriate manner who have full insight into their actions. We all need to be alert to the fact that such people exist, to identify them, and support their victims in coming forward. And of course, ensure that such perpetrators have no home in our union or profession.
There are also, however doctors who might act in a way which makes their colleague feel uncomfortable and who lack this insight. They may genuinely think they are indulging in harmless banter, or trying to flirt with someone who could easily say ‘no’ to their advances.
These people’s intentions might be different from those of a more calculated predator, but to the recipient of their actions, there can be an equal degree of harm as if they had acted deliberately.
Part of the reason that our profession might have this problem is that of hierarchy. On the conference floor (if not necessarily the hushed conversations at the sidelines) we have a theoretical equality as trade union representatives. We each have one vote.
But when we socialise, and of course in many of our interactions back in the workplace, the hierarchy is pronounced. Junior doctors and medical students, in particular, may feel unwilling to speak out if they observe unacceptable behaviour in more senior members of the profession.
It is also arguable that hierarchies are more obvious to those at the bottom than those at the top; what somebody at the top of a hierarchy may see as a harmless comment between equals, the person at the other end may see as something intimidating due to it coming from somebody more powerful or influential.
So I think we all must pause and think before we act, about how our language and behaviour might affect others. It is entirely wrong, and potentially very damaging, to assume that the absence of clear objection to the way we are behaving should be taken as consent.
Thabo Miller is an ST3 in paediatrics in the Northern Deanery, and a member of the ARM agenda committee
Really important reminder, thank you Thabo
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