No industry is immune to sexual harassment, including dentistry. But just how prevalent a problem is sexual harassment in dentistry and what can—and should—you do if you suspect you’re being targeted in this fashion? Kerry Faulkner reports
Allegations of sexual harassment have blown apart the entertainment industries in the United States and Australia, prompting many professionals to look at their own industries and ask, ‘Could it also be happening in my occupation?’
Cases of dentists acting inappropriately toward patients occasionally receive attention in the mainstream media, though there hasn’t been much said about inappropriate relationships between dentists and dental therapists and dental hygienists.
Yet dentistry is a field where the majority of senior staff are male and their closest working colleagues are female—the sort of power imbalance that can cause sexual harassment in some work environments to thrive.
However, a search of the NSW Healthcare Complaints Commission over the past two years reveals very few allegations of unprofessional conduct or misconduct vis-à-vis sexual harassment against dentists in that state. Rather, deregistration was most often due to other issues such as poor-practice hygiene standards.
That’s not to say that sexual harassment in dentistry does not occur. Curtin University dental therapy lecturer Carol Nevin says the university makes students aware of the laws protecting them from discrimination and harassment as part of its dental therapy training. But, she says, it’s a profession with the luxury of job vacancies, so harassed employees are more likely to just resign and move than make an official complaint.
That’s backed by evidence from the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC). According to this, very few people who experience workplace sexual harassment make a formal complaint—and that may be because they don’t understand what sexual harassment is.
“Health sector agencies cannot demonstrate that they have responded to workplace bullying and harassment effectively.”—Victorian Auditor-General’s Office 2016 report
The Commission says its 2012 phone survey found people who expressly reported that they had not experienced sexual harassment reconsidered after they were given an explanation of what constituted sexual harassment. One in five went on to report they had experienced those behaviours.
The ubiquitousness of social media has also broadened the scope and opportunities for harassment. Inappropriate advances on social networking sites and sending sexually explicit texts or emails constitute sexual harassment alongside old-school leering, staring, touching, making suggestive jokes, comments and statements, and asking intrusive questions about a person’s private life.
Despite being outlawed for over 25 years, sexual harassment remains a problem in Australian workplaces—21 per cent of all complaints to the AHRC fall under the Sex Discrimination Act and 88 per cent of those relate to workplaces.
In past sexual harassment cases that have come before the courts, dentists have been deregistered for inappropriate touching and making sexually explicit suggestions. One dentist even suggested taking photos of his young employee nude.
The Australian Dental Association’s (ADA) Equal Opportunity policy urges all employers to have bullying, discrimination and harassment policies in place and respond quickly when any issues are raised. It explains that there are national equal opportunity laws and state or territory health and safety bodies that provide mechanisms to help people subject to such treatment.
In a 2016 audit of bullying and harassment in the state’s health sector, the Victorian Auditor-General’s Office delivered a number of damning findings, referring especially to the lack of collaboration between organisations when it came to creating harassment-free workplaces. The audit determined that workplace bullying and harassment could be eliminated or minimised with a range of controls.
However, it said, health agencies struggled to manage and prevent it. The sector lacked the guidance and support required to improve its management of inappropriate behaviours, and there was poor collaboration between key sector agencies and a limited exchange of information between them.
“We understand that ‘speaking up’ about inappropriate behaviour can be challenging and requires courage.”—Louise Palmer, chief experience officer, Dental Health Services Victoria
“Health sector agencies cannot demonstrate that they have responded to workplace bullying and harassment effectively. They don’t have a comprehensive understanding of the hazard, and as such, cannot effectively respond to the risk. Key controls are inadequately implemented, missing and poorly co-ordinated,” said the report.
The dental sector has representative bodies nationally, such as the Dental Hygienists Association of Australia, Australian Dental Oral Health Therapists Association, Dental Board of Australia and ADA. Where they do offer information on harassment, most of it focuses on the patient-dentist relationship.
As Dental Health Services Victoria’s (DHSV) chief experience officer Louise Palmer explains, no profession is immune to bullying and harassment, and the Victorian audit prompted key groups to sign a joint statement against bullying, harassment and inappropriate behaviour. “This showed that the leaders are determined to transform our workplaces. It also signalled to the wider community that dental professionals are committed to creating workplaces that foster a culture of wellbeing,” Palmer says. “Within DHSV, we have clear policies to address inappropriate behaviour. All issues are taken seriously, handled promptly and treated with sensitivity and confidentiality.
“But we know it is not enough to simply have policies and procedures in place. We are actively fostering a respectful workplace environment that is based on guiding principles and realised through shared values with clearly articulated behaviours where everyone is accountable for and promotes our values. It takes cultural change to deeply embed our values across the organisation.”
To build this culture of understanding, all staff have been involved in exploring these issues in organisation-wide learning days with a focus on respect, caring and kindness. “We understand that ‘speaking up’ about inappropriate behaviour can be challenging and requires courage,” she adds.
“We have trained staff to be wellbeing contact officers to provide confidential peer support for colleagues and help them with options available to address inappropriate workplace behaviour issues they may be experiencing.”
The AHRC stresses too that work colleagues who witness harassment of any sort—bullying or sexual harassment—shouldn’t be silent; they have an important role to play in stopping bad behaviour and can lodge a complaint through its website.