It took a few years of working as a doctor before I realised there was something very wrong with how I – and other female colleagues – were being treated by the men working alongside us.
Straight out of medical school, I spent two years rotating around various hospitals, trying out different specialities and getting a feel for life on the wards, before joining my current team. I was immediately in awe of the dedication I saw in those around me. Our days were tough, working long shifts and in challenging circumstances, but helping our patients kept us going. It was a massive deal in my family that I became a doctor – no one I knew had been to university – and I was excited to join a profession that enabled me to care for others and make a change.
Looking back, I now see it wasn’t quite the team I thought it was.
Derogatory comments about our appearance were commonplace. Snide remarks intended to embarrass us were normalised. Unwanted physical touching became expected. All of which, sadly, means that a new report highlighting that 30% of female surgeons have been sexually assaulted by a colleague came as little surprise to me.
Of the 1,434 registered surgeons who responded anonymously to researchers, 90% of women and 81% of men also said they’d witnessed some form of sexual misconduct, and referred to a "culture of silence" in hospitals – wherein people feared that speaking up could jeopardise their future careers.
In my experience, female staff were frequently warned about which male staff members to be wary of. ‘Don't go in a room alone with this consultant’. ‘Make sure you're not in the locker room with that surgeon’. Comments like these were whispered to us by female colleagues as we passed in the corridor.
At the time, we didn’t really stop to process how wrong these situations were, and there was no safe space in which to spotlight such behaviour. We figured we just had to shut up and put up with it, and we were too busy focusing on our patients to overthink it.
As a junior doctor, I was groped by a consultant at a conference and seriously sexually assaulted by another doctor. Having to spend all day, every day in the same environment that I’d been assaulted in was traumatic.
The abuse I suffered at the hands of male colleagues impacted my career, regardless of whether I spoke out – against the “culture of silence” – or not. Because, while we had supervisors to whom we were supposed to go with any concerns, these are most often consultants – many of them men. The medical profession is a small, interconnected world, hospitals even more so, and the medical field is a deeply patriarchal institution.
According to NHS figures, 66% of consultants are men and 54% of chief executive or director roles in the NHS are held by men. We all knew that if we raised a complaint to one consultant, they were most likely friends with our abuser – or worse, they were the one doing it in the first place.
Eventually, struggling to cope, I dropped out of surgical training and moved into general practice instead. Moving away from the physical location in which my abuse took place helped to a degree, but my mental health still suffered. I took months off work and had therapy to process and cope.
That’s why I decided to launch a campaign with my colleague Dr Chelcie Jewitt, to prevent what happened to me from happening to other women in the NHS. Surviving in Scrubs is exposing the sexism that so many are dealing with when they go to work in the NHS to care for patients every day.
As part of the campaign, we're encouraging women and non-binary people from all ethnic backgrounds and with all physical abilities working in our field to come forward and share their story. Since kicking off the campaign last year, we’ve had more than 170 testimonies submitted to us – with multiple stories contained within each submission. Over the last twelve months, we’ve also been busy amplifying our campaign to reach senior healthcare leaders and the government.
And that’s not all: we’ve launched a new website with guidance, support and blogs, and continue to receive stories from survivors. We have been working with NHS England, the ambulance service, the BMA, the GMC, medical schools, medical royal colleges, and universities to push for change. Change which is happening, albeit slowly. While the NHS has introduced a new charter (an agreement with 10 pledges that healthcare organisations voluntarily sign up to in order to tackle sexual misconduct in healthcare) and the General Medical Council has issued new guidance, we’re still waiting on stronger policies to be put in place, along with better education and reporting systems.
While the surgeon's report published this week shows the appalling misogyny and abuse women experience working in surgery, it’s only a small part of the medical sphere’s gigantic problem with misogyny: it is an incredibly widespread issue and one that exists across healthcare in general. At Surviving in Scrubs, we’ve heard stories from numerous nursing and allied health professionals – and devastatingly, many survivors are not listened to, despite raising their voices again and again.
We’re now urgently calling on the NHS and relevant colleges to stop this behaviour, take action against those who perpetuate it and support those who experience it.
Sexism and abuse is a societal issue, yes, but it’s also an NHS issue – and we won’t stop telling our stories until it has been stamped out.
Following the British Journal of Surgery report published on 12 September 2023, Dr Binta Sultan, Chair of NHS England’s National Clinical Network of Sexual Assault and Abuse Services said: "No one should experience sexual abuse or assault in the workplace but unfortunately, we know inequality and sexual misconduct exists and is experienced disproportionately by our female colleagues across the NHS.
"While this report makes incredibly difficult reading, it presents clear evidence of why we must take more action to better understand and address these issues.
"We are committed to working with our partners to ensure that healthcare environments are safe for all staff and patients. We are already taking significant steps to do this, including through commitments to provide more support and clear reporting mechanisms to those who have suffered harassment or inappropriate behaviour, thanks to a first of its kind sexual safety charter, which was produced collaboratively with people with lived experience."
In response to Cosmopolitan UK's request for comment, Charlie Massey, Chief Executive of the GMC, said they have a "zero tolerance" policy towards sexual harassment and that they "Welcome this report and the wider work WPSMS have done to highlight and address the serious issue of sexual misconduct in healthcare. There can be no place for any form of sexual harassment, discrimination, misogyny or bullying in the medical profession.
"Our updated professional standards for doctors, Good medical practice, set out our zero tolerance of sexual misconduct. The standards are clear that acting in a sexual way towards patients or colleagues is unacceptable. We have also produced support materials on our website to help doctors identify and tackle sexual misconduct.
"In many cases involving sexual allegations, the GMC’s position will be that such serious misconduct is incompatible with continued registration. In those cases, we will submit that erasure is the appropriate sanction."
Dr Becky Cox and Dr Chelcie Jewitt thank all those who have submitted their stories, and continue to encourage others to share their own. Read more about the Surviving in Scrubs campaign, and submit your own story, here. You can support the campaign’s GoFundMe fundraiser here.
For help with any of the issues discussed in this article, visit: Rape Crisis England & Wales, Rape Crisis Scotland, or Rape Crisis Northern Ireland. RASASC provides emotional and practical support for survivors, families and friends.
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