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“As the only woman, you're asked to make the tea” Leading female surgeon hits out at endemic culture of sexism

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One of Britain’s leading female surgeons has called operating theatres a “hostile environment for women”, likening them to “an old boy’s club.”

Speaking to the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Jyoti Shah, a consultant urological surgeon at Burton Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, says there is an endemic strain of sexism within the surgical world and is calling for cultural change.

"Surgery still remains very male dominated, and it does still appear as an old boys’ club and you’re very much an outsider as a woman," she says.

"You're trying to break into their gang almost, and that culture is quite ingrained in surgery."

Currently, there are 800 female surgical consultants in England, which accounts for only 11% of all surgical consultants.

Shah went on to describe incidents of sexism in the workplace, saying

"I know one woman who as she was operating, she leant over and the consultant whom she was operating with very gently brushed against her breast."

Jyoti Shah

Consultant urological surgeon Jyoti Shah

Shah also noted more "subtle" forms of sexism, such as:

"Being referred to as 'the nurse', being in a meeting with men and being the only woman and you're asked to make the tea."

The first female president of the Royal College of Surgeons, Clare Marx,says there is a fine line between a joke and sexual abuse.

"We have to be very careful that there isn't a confusion between a manner of speaking and something that is rightly offensive," she says.

Marx, who has been an orthopaedic surgeon for over two decades, says that she had also experienced sexism in her career as a surgeon. She gave the example of a patient who, after having his illness explained by her, asked when the surgeon was going to arrive.

Marx believes that the answer is not to tell people how to behave, but create a change by increasing the number of female surgeons.

"We can’t tell people to change their culture, what we have to do is grow the numbers and show the way we can change the culture from within rather than dictating. Laying down rules doesn’t work," she says.

surgery tools

A career as a female surgeon is rife with sexism, says Shah

A 2013 survey revealed that 68% of newly qualified female doctors believed surgery was an unwelcoming career for women.

Shah believes the answer is a "cultural change so that women don’t feel uncomfortable or inferior."

"Women are tough resilient creatures, we’re facing this culturally engrained behaviour by our male colleagues, discrimination does exist and it’s existed for far too long and its time we did something about it," she says.

"This is about saving lives and recruiting the best talent possible, regardless of gender, we want to create an environment that is appealing to everybody – we owe that to patients."

But Marx believes the culture is already changing, and the increasing number of women going into a career in medicine reflects this. 

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