Calling out sexual misconduct in healthcare

22 September 2023

A recent report published in the British Journal of Surgery revealed the shocking extent to which female surgeons have suffered sexual harassment and abuse at the hands of some male colleagues. A toxic culture of sexism and misogyny, not just in surgery but within other specialties and health professions, has been highlighted as a major reason for such misconduct persisting unreported for so long.

As senior figures in medicine and healthcare call for urgent action to protect women workers and bring about long-overdue change, the BGS has signed up in support of a powerful statement addressed to the medical profession in Wales from leaders of medical colleges.
The BGS strongly supports a more equal culture in medicine and healthcare more widely. Sexist actions, behaviours and institutional factors contribute to the persistence of gender bias, and should not be tolerated anywhere, let alone in a health and care system so dependent on the commitment and competence of its workforce.
BGS Deputy Honorary Secretary, Dr Ruth Law, shares her own reflections and experiences:
“While there is much to be celebrated about the health and care workforce, it is important to take a moment to reflect on the challenges many of us face in our day jobs. We were horrified to read the recently published article on sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape by colleagues in the surgical workforce. It concluded that sexual misconduct in the past five years has been experienced widely and is not dealt with adequately by accountable organisations. This follows the British Medical Association (BMA) survey last year on sexism in medicine, where 91% of women reported experiencing sexism at work within the past two years.
As a privileged white woman, I am acutely aware I cannot comment with lived experience on the full intersectionality of the issues raised, but I have seen again and again the benefits of a diverse and inclusive workforce in delivering the best care possible for our patients. Working together to eradicate sexism encourages respect for women of all identities and backgrounds across the multidisciplinary team (MDT). This should also contribute to improving the experience of our female patients. A Kings Fund and University of York Report in 2021 makes sobering reading in this regard; women of all ages are too often ignored, belittled or – most worryingly – put off seeking healthcare as a result of their experience of interacting with medical staff. Focus groups with women over 65 highlighted feelings of ‘invisibility.’
I am fortunate to have worked alongside wonderful female role models and male allies who have offered me professional development opportunities but I am not immune to the systemic challenges facing women in clinical workplaces everyday. In 1907, RCP President Sir Richard Douglas Powell said ‘Women ought not to be encouraged to enter a profession for which they were constitutionally unfitted’ and at times it feels we have not moved far enough in the last 116 years. A recent survey amongst male and female medical registrars found that our medical registrars are witnessing sexism, with 92% having witnessed or been aware of colleagues experiencing sexism in the medical workplace. Despite compelling evidence that we are still promoted less often, paid differently and exposed to a spectrum of sexual harassment and abuse, the reported experiences of women continue to be questioned and not believed. The bravery and persistence of our surgical colleagues in highlighting these issues should not be underestimated.
The inclusive culture and collaborative team approach is what attracts many of us to geriatric medicine, but we cannot be complacent as a specialty. This is a moment of profound internal reflection for our profession. We stand as allies with our colleagues in surgery, with whom we work closely every day in our liaison roles. We commit to building a workplace where the whole MDT starts and ends every day in an atmosphere of psychological safety and each member feels equally valued and able to speak up.”

If you have experienced issues of sexism, sexual harassment or sexual abuse, the following organisations offer advice and support: