"I've had people stand behind me and grind themselves"
NHS female surgeons have revealed that they have been subjected to misogyny and sexual harassment in the workplace.
A British Journal of Surgery study of 1,434 surgeons found that almost a third of female surgeons had been sexually assaulted, and two-thirds had been sexually harassed.
Retired anaesthetist Dr Peter Hilton sparked outrage by telling female surgeons to “toughen up”.
He stood by his comments, saying that “banter” and “bullying” occurred in many walks of life – and that medics should “deal with it”.
However, he maintained that he was “not condoning sexual harassment”, adding that any allegations of criminality should be investigated.
Trainee trauma and orthopaedic surgeon Roshana Mehdian-Staffell spoke out about the “boys’ club mentality” within the profession.
Detailing her experiences, she revealed that while she was training, a surgeon drove her to a satellite clinic in his car and put his hand on her thigh.
She added: “I’ve had people stand behind me and grind themselves into me.”
In response to Dr Hilton’s initial comments, she tweeted:
“My mind is actually blown. It’s stressful so men can and will sexually harass you?
“He’s (and others like him) the reason it went unchallenged for so long.”
Bristol-based consultant plastic surgeon Philippa Jackson said she was discussing a patient with a male colleague when he tried to give her a hug.
She said: “He made some noises and rubbed himself against me. And then, as he backed away, he said, ‘You probably felt my erection then’ and he also told me he could see down my top.’
Ms Jackson said she did not want to make a fuss because “we were about to go into theatre and I don’t think I had properly registered what had happened”.
Later that evening, she was working with the same colleague who offered to tie up her gown, which is a normal procedure among surgeons.
But he allegedly said:
“Now you’ve given me permission to tie you up under any circumstances.”
He then kissed her neck from behind.
Ms Jackson said she has “no faith in the system” to protect her from attackers like the colleague who assaulted her.
Former consultant oncoplastic breast surgeon Liz O’Riordan said she regularly experienced sexual harassment during her career.
She said: “It was usually in theatre, when you’re operating next to your boss, your superiors, and your peers.
“You’re wearing thin cotton scrubs and you have full body contact.”
Another NHS female surgeon claimed she was sexually assaulted by a consultant who wiped his sweaty brow on her breasts.
The woman was “humiliated” by her colleague, who “smirked” after she suggested getting him a towel and told her:
“No, this is much more fun.”
The report in the British Journal of Surgery concluded:
“Sexual misconduct occurs frequently and appears to go unchecked in the surgical environment owing to a combination of a deeply hierarchical structure and a gender and power imbalance.
“The result is an unsafe working environment and an unsafe space for patients.”
Frequency of women experiencing sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape since 2018
- 38.4% said they have faced unwanted advances
- 61.8% said they have faced unwanted sexual talk
- 33.2% said they faced inappropriate touching (excluding breasts/genitals)
- 6.5% faced inappropriate touching of breasts/genitals
- 67.3% received uninvited comments about their body
- 44.9% had their personal space deliberately infringed
- 0.6% said they were raped in the workplace
- 2% said they were raped outside of the workplace
Dr Binta Sultan, chair of NHS England’s national clinical network of sexual assault and abuse services, said the report presented “clear evidence” that action was needed to make hospitals a safer environment.
She said: “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.”
Tim Mitchell, president of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, said such behaviour had “no place anywhere in the NHS”.
Calling it “abhorrent”, he said: “We will not tolerate such behaviour in our ranks.”
The Department of Health and Social Care said:
“The Health and Social Care Secretary is clear that sexual violence or misconduct of any kind is unacceptable and has no place in the NHS.
“He is working closely with NHS leaders to root out this unacceptable behaviour and ensure services are always safe for staff and patients.
“In partnership with the Royal Colleges, staff, regulators and trade unions, the NHS recently launched the healthcare system’s first organisational sexual safety charter.
“Signatories commit to taking and enforcing a zero-tolerance approach to any unwanted, inappropriate and/or harmful sexual behaviours within the workplace.”