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Female Ambulance Victoria paramedics have been told not to have children if they want their career to progress and that they're no use in intensive care units once they have "used their uterus," as they claim sex discrimination, sexual harassment and gender-based bullying are widespread in the ambulance service.
Thirteen paramedics, including several men who did not wish to be named for fear of workplace repercussions, have supported allegations raised by paramedic Rasa Piggott in an open letter to be sent to Ambulance Victoria's chair, former police chief Ken Lay.
Rasa Piggott is one of many women speaking up about sex discrimination at Ambulance Victoria. Credit:Penny Stephens
Dozens more have verified the claims in internal forums, saying some of the harassment takes place in front of managers and is not taken seriously.
In her letter, Ms Piggott, an advanced life support paramedic, outlines "active discrimination and instances of abuse in our workplace", including "horrible instances of sexual misconduct". A number of paramedics have told The Age that fear of retribution is rife and stops people speaking up about what they have seen.
Ms Piggott is calling on Mr Lay to instigate an independent review similar to the 2014 inquiry he commissioned into harassment and discrimination at Victoria Police by the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC), which found a high prevalence and tolerance of sexual harassment and substantial sex discrimination that left many employees harmed or sidelined.
In answer to questions from The Age on the issue, Ambulance Victoria CEO Tony Walker issued an all staff bulletin that said "most of us do the right thing by our patients, our colleagues and the community. Unfortunately, in a large and complex organisation, this isn't always the case" and that he had zero tolerance for discrimination, bullying and harassment.
An experienced male paramedic told The Age his friend had been sent to a regional branch after graduating and was told by her manager: "I want to know right now, are you going to shit out a few kids and waste my time or be a good ambo? Should we even bother putting effort into you?"
Another paramedic said she had witnessed a female colleague being sexually harassed by a male colleague while the woman was giving cardiac compression to a dying patient.
"He looked at her butt moving and said, 'Oh the view is pretty good from up here' – he was breathing for the patient – I remember being horrified because the family was in the room at the time. He's quite high up now," she said.
Several others reported an incident in which a young first responder travelling with a manager in a remote region was told he could "tie you to a tree and rape you".
One said she had been "slapped on the butt by a male MICA [Mobile Intensive Care Ambulance] team manager while getting out of an ambulance". Another reported how a graduate paramedic had been pushed against a wall and sexually assaulted at work.
Several paramedics have said that sex-based maltreatment and the lack of redress has caused them serious mental health issues, including suicidal ideation.
One mother said she had developed mastitis after being denied time to express and a place to store milk during long shifts, or a period of working closer to her home while she was still feeding.
"They wouldn't believe I was breastfeeding still and didn't believe I needed to. I had to go to my doctor for a medical certificate," she said.
Many stressed that most male paramedics supported gender equality, but a "boys' club" culture was entrenched in some long-standing pockets of management. This also made flexible work extremely difficult for fathers. Several said they felt parents were "punished".
After reports of discrimination emerged, the Victorian Ambulance Union issued a bulletin last week saying it was investigating gender and pregnancy discrimination at Ambulance Victoria.
Complaints cited in the bulletin "also related to the 'culture' of MICA fostered by [Ambulance Victoria] and the feeling that current or prospective MICA paramedics cannot voice their concerns due to fear of vilification, victimisation or other differential treatment".
People are scared, women, you just can't speak up because you're professionally done if you do.
Victorian Ambulance Union secretary Danny Hill said "we've been bombarded" with dozens of reports: "There is clearly more than enough evidence to warrant a call on the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission to conduct a review into Ambulance Victoria."
"When you hear so many stories, there's a clear pattern where it's almost systemic behaviour and completely tolerated."
"Part of it is individual people that are doing it, but it's also symptomatically the way the service is structured, it makes it difficult for anyone to balance ambulance work and being a parent for example," he said.
Many female paramedics are raising serious gender discrimination and harassment claims.Credit:Paul Rovere
Ms Piggott, who is also a facilitator of education, has detailed "normalised" gender discrimination in parts of the organisation, including managers "advising staff not to get pregnant if wanting to pursue a higher role, stating they will not be considered for a promotion if they plan on becoming pregnant and attempting to demote a person to a junior role for taking parental leave".
Ms Piggott said mothers have been required to wean infants after a few months due to lack of management support for breastfeeding and others are sidelined "because they are deemed to be of child-bearing age".
One paramedic said demeaning conduct by her clinical instructor, coupled with being ridiculed by her team manger for raising the issue, had left her feeling broken.
"It started in my graduate year … I had an issue with a clinical instructor who is well known for being a bully," she said. "He would yell at me in front of patients, I had patients comforting me as he was yelling at me. I had done very well in my graduate year up until I got him."
When she raised issues with her team manager he "turned to the other men in the room and said, 'this is what Ambulance Victoria gets for hiring a bunch of young women who have never been in a professional workplace before'."
The impact of the man's conduct, which she documented, and about which she attempted to escalate a complaint, was serious enough for previous clinical instructors to notice she had gone from "doing really well to not doing well and looking depressed".
"I went to Bunnings and I was going to buy a rope to hang myself, I was feeling like, 'I'm done'. It was longstanding, and I'd been made to think it was all in my head. It destroyed me. I'd given everything to this career and worked so hard to get where I was.
"I got a Snapchat from one of my friends [a paramedic in the same area] … I could see he was at work and I thought, 'he's going to have to come and verify my death and I can't do that to him'. "
Paramedic Anthony Wilde said he had taken issue with a MICA manager who had said to him "I'm f—-d, all these women are getting pregnant, it's f—-d my whole branch".
He said early female members of Ambulance Victoria, which only began employing female paramedics in 1987, had been "put through the wringer". Though men and women peers support each other, he said, "100 per cent, Ambulance Victoria discriminates against women".
"I'm fed up with it, to be like, 'You're going to get pregnant so you can't do this job', that's bullshit. My friend had to lie to management [conceal her pregnancy] when she got a position because she knew she wouldn't get it if she was pregnant," he said.
"People are scared, women, you just can't speak up because you're professionally done if you do."
One female paramedic said she had "been exposed to so many examples of this, they blur into the background", and that a list of incidents of discrimination she had kept included being told that her endorsement for MICA was contingent upon her "elaborating on what my plans were in terms of having a family".
She was told by her team manager and potential endorser, "I'm not going to sign this piece of paper if you are planning on having a baby".
"As soon as I got pregnant, my boss said to me, 'You've used your uterus, you're no good to me now' … that individual is implicated in a lot of complaints," she said.
If you or anyone you know needs support call Lifeline 131 114, or Beyond Blue 1300 224 636.
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