Women make up 77 per cent of the NHS, yet a new report reveals many are subjected to sexist discrimination and sexual harrassment. Stylist hears from the women speaking up about it.
The first time Dr Becky Cox, a 33-year-old GP from Oxford, was sexually assaulted by a colleague she wanted to report it. “I really, really thought about it,” she remembers. “But I decided it wasn’t going to be taken seriously, and if anything, it’d be detrimental to my career”.
Cox had come to that conclusion after recently finishing medical school, where a “culture of misogyny” had loomed large right from the outset. There were “casual sexist comments, inappropriate remarks, rude comments about women doctors and nurses. There’s almost this sort of lad culture and ‘banter’ that was going on amongst doctors.” She wondered if things might change as she progressed up the career ladder. But after six months in surgical training – and another sexual assault – she’d had enough. “I just thought, I can’t do this anymore. So I left.”
Many in the medical profession feel the same way. In recent weeks, the service has found itself plagued by the “greatest workforce crisis in NHS history,” according to a report from MPs. As of today, there are some 105,000 vacancies, with doctors, nurses and midwives reporting being pushed out by bullying, harassment and burnout. Women make up 77 per cent of the NHS – the UK’s biggest employer – yet many say they are subjected to sexist discrimination that dents their wellbeing, earning prospects and prospective promotions. The report also points out that “talented women are missing out on the opportunity to become surgeons because of a lack of support”.
Surgery in particular is notoriously macho, Cox, who has now switched to general practice, tells Stylist. Earlier this year, having reached a “tipping point” of tales of abuse from friends and colleagues, she set up Surviving in Scrubs - a site collecting experiences of sexism and harassment from female NHS workers. Alongside Dr Chelcie Jewitt, another doctor well aware that female staff “are scared, and want to talk about it,” the pair’s platform has been steadily amassing survivors’ tales over the past few months and is being hailed as the catalyst for medicine’s #MeToo movement.
The anonymous posts make for grim reading. One house officer reports being groped by an anaesthetist in theatre while carrying out an operation for a cancer patient. “I was so shocked I froze,” she writes – until being chastised by the surgeon for being “distracted”. Afterwards, she “went into the changing rooms and burst into tears. The nursing sister who found me begged me to report him because it’s been going on for years but ‘nobody believes the nurses’”. Another shares that no matter how loose or conservative her clothing, male staff members only “talk to my chest”. Just last week, a consultant doing her rounds reported to the website that she was grabbed by a male colleague, who began shouting “no means no, I’ve got witnesses here” – seeming to make light of the fact she had been sexually assaulted as a junior doctor.
Many of the women share experiences of trying to report what they’ve been put through only to be dismissed or met with excuses: that the male practitioner is “having a hard time at home,” or simply “making a joke”. One heard that her complaint had been taken to a tribunal only after the case had been dismissed. The culture is the problem, many reinforce: “I’m disgusted by the General Medical Council [GMC], their pointless statements and what they have enabled,” one anonymous user wrote. While Professor Colin Melville, Medical Director and Director for Education and Standards at the GMC, told Stylist that such accounts are “harrowing and appalling… There can be no place for misogyny, sexism or any form of sexual harassment in the medical profession”.
Yet it’s happening. In the past year, more stories of women’s experiences in medicine have tipped into public view. In a paper for the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS), Simon Fleming and Becky Fisher wrote of an environment in which almost half of vascular trainees had seen or personally experienced bullying, undermining or harassment. Jewitt meanwhile, in a report for the British Medical Association, published results of a survey that found 90 per cent of female doctors suffered sexism at work, with almost a third experiencing unwanted physical conduct and 56 per cent receiving unwanted verbal exchanges. “Women doctors appear to be working in an environment that consistently undervalues them and doubts their capabilities,” she wrote.
Along with Survivors in Scrubs, there is Project S, which also asks female medical workers to share their experiences “to understand and demonstrate the scale of the issue and to tackle the stigma, shame and silence that often leaves victims feeling unable to report or seek help,” founder Kate Jarman explains.
For those who do speak out, the RCS paper showed that ‘reporting these incidents can lead to greater negative impact for the victim than the perpetrator, by being threatened with negative consequences for their career.’
Natalie Miles, a 27-year-old locum doctor in the East Midlands, recalls numerous examples of inappropriate conduct and sexual harassment in the workplace, as well as a male colleague once offering her money “for her company”. When she mentioned this to another colleague, she was told, “wow, get you starting a little #MeToo movement. I would have just taken the money.”
She has raised concerns about this to various colleagues, and other infractions “multiple times”. “But you often find you are speaking with a man, who tiptoes around the issue rather than dealing with it,” she says. Typically, she says, this results in being palmed off on “one of the senior female consultants”. Miles has considered leaving at times, she admits, but refuses to be pushed out. “I know that I’m vocal and have always been one to shout about injustice. I worry about the women who don’t.” She is well aware that “there is not true equality” in the profession, and that until there is, it remains “harder to be a female doctor than a male doctor”.
Jewitt and Cox’s first goal for Surviving in Scrubs was to raise awareness of what really goes on behind the blue paper curtain. Cox says her next is for the GMC, the public body that maintains the official register of medical practitioners, to update its Good Practice Guidelines with explicit reference to sexist behaviour and misogyny. “And going forward, we want other Royal Colleges to come out and say, ‘yes, we recognise that we’ve got an issue with this, and we are going to do something about it.’”
Jarman, the executive director of Milton Keynes hospital who set up Project S, adds that the NHS needs “clear, consistent support structures for staff who experience sexism – from HR and professional body intervention, through to police reporting and support for victims”. There is also a major need for “vocal, visible male allies – we need men to be active and invested in eradicating sexism in the NHS, and to feel able to call out sexist behaviour they witness, or indeed that they may experience”.
What of young women hoping to enter the profession? Jarman is positive that things are improving. “Gen Z is an absolute force,” she says. “But it’s down to people in positions of influence and leadership to help clear the path for them, to back them, and believe in them if they are to inherit a different future.”
Cox, too, is hopeful. “We’ve got a long way to go. It’s not going to be easy; there are going to be a lot of hurdles,” she knows. “But we’re in a position to create major change now.”