Around two-thirds of female surgeons have experienced sexual harassment from colleagues, and almost one in three has been sexually assaulted by a colleague, according to a new report, described as "harrowing" and "horrifying" by NHS Providers and the British Medical Association.
Researchers from the University of Exeter and the University of Surrey set out to examine gender differences in surgical workforce members' experiences with sexual misconduct among colleagues in the surgical workforce over the past 5 years. They found that "women were significantly more likely to report witnessing, and [to] be a target of, sexual misconduct".
Most Women in Surgery Have Experienced Sexual Harassment
Almost two in three women (63.3%) reported being the target of sexual harassment and 29.9% said they had been sexually assaulted. Comparable figures for men were 23.7% and 6.9%. Well over four-fifths of participants — 89.5% of women and 81.0 % of men — had witnessed such events.
Harassment included jokes with sexual content; displaying sexualised pictures; unwanted/sexual e-comms, physical advances, or sexual talk; uninvited comments about the body; asking for a date despite previous refusal; being offered career opportunities for sex; being threatened for refusing sexual favours, and deliberately infringing body space.
Assault included forced physical contact for career opportunities – reported by 10.9% of women versus 0.7% of men; touching, excluding genitals/breasts; touching of genitals/breasts, and self-fondling by the perpetrator.
Being raped by a colleague was reported by 0.8% of women versus 0.1% of men (1.9% of women witnessing rape, versus 0.6% of men).
The survey, published in the British Journal of Surgery, concluded that sexual misconduct was "experienced widely, with women affected disproportionately". Women and men working in the NHS were "living different realities", the researchers commented.
Scale and Severity of Sexual Assault Against Female Surgeons "Atrocious"
In a statement, Dr Latifa Patel, equality lead at the British Medical Association, said it was "truly horrifying" to hear about women's experiences. "The scale and severity of sexual assault against female surgeons over the past five years, revealed by this survey, is atrocious. It is appalling that women in surgery are being subjected to sexual assault and sexual misconduct from their colleagues, at work and often whilst they are trying to care for patients."
The survey also showed that accountable organisations were not regarded as dealing adequately with sexual misconduct, with women's evaluations significantly lower than men's. Only 15.1% of women regarded the General Medical Council's response as adequate (versus 48.6% of men), with equivalent dismal figures for NHS Trusts (15.8% of women versus 44.9% of men), and the highest scores for the Royal Colleges still only 31.1% among women versus 60.2% among men.
In May this year, England's Health Secretary Steve Barclay urged NHS leaders to do more to protect health workers after a joint investigation by The BMJ and the Guardian revealed an "epidemic" of sexual misconduct in the NHS between 2017 and 2022.
The latest report was released just a week after the NHS launched a new ' sexual safety charter' promising to eradicate sexual harassment in the workplace. The charter would be "vital to helping protect staff", said Miriam Deakin, director of policy and strategy at NHS Providers. She described the findings as "harrowing" and pointed to "a clear and urgent need for action" to stamp out unacceptable behaviour at all levels. "There must be zero tolerance of sexual harassment of NHS colleagues," she said.
Report Makes "Incredibly Difficult Reading"
Asked to comment by Medscape News UK, 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." Ms Sultan insisted that the NHS was committed to ensuring healthcare environments were safe for all staff and patients, and the new sexual safety charter would provide "more support and clear reporting mechanisms to those who have suffered harassment or inappropriate behaviour".
In a companion article, British Journal of Surgery editors Malin Sund and Des Winter said that the findings on the frequency of sexual misconduct targeted at women, and their low levels of trust in various accountable organisations, were "distressing and very disappointing". Furthermore, they said, the survey was restricted to offences between colleagues and did not cover potential misconduct that stemmed from other healthcare professionals, hospital personnel, or patients. "Therefore the reality might be even more grim," they warned.