Women surgeons report experiencing sexual harassment, assault, and even rape from their colleagues, according to a comprehensive analysis of NHS staff.

BBC News has interviewed female victims who endured sexual assault within operating theatres during surgeries.

The study’s investigators have identified a distressing trend of junior female trainees enduring mistreatment at the hands of senior male surgeons, and this alarming issue continues to persist within NHS hospitals.

The Royal College of Surgeons has expressed deep concern, labelling the results as “profoundly disturbing.”

What do the reports entail?

Early in her career, Judith found herself in a vulnerable position in the operating theatre, where she had the least authority. A senior male surgeon’s inappropriate behaviour left her feeling violated and humiliated.

“He just turned round and buried his head right into my breasts, and I realised he was wiping his brow on me. You just freeze, right? ‘Why is his face in my cleavage?'” When he repeated this action, Judith offered to get him a towel, but his reply was chilling: “No, this is much more fun.” His smirk left her feeling dirty and degraded.

What made matters worse was the deafening silence of her colleagues. He wasn’t even the most senior person in the room, but he knew that such behaviour was tolerated, and that’s deeply troubling.

Unfortunately, Judith’s experience is not an isolated incident. Sexual harassment and abuse in the surgical profession extend beyond the hospital walls.

Anne, a pseudonym used for legal reasons, wanted to share her story with the BBC, believing that change can only occur when people speak out. While she does not label what happened to her as rape, she is unequivocal that the sexual encounter was not consensual. It took place at a social event linked to a medical conference, attended by doctors from the same specialty.

In a disturbingly common pattern, Anne was a trainee, and her perpetrator was a consultant who manipulated her trust and vulnerability. “I trusted him, I looked up to him,” she says. He exploited her trust, isolating her from others and engaging in non-consensual sex.

Anne’s body froze during the incident, and she couldn’t resist him. “It’s not what I wanted, it had never been what I wanted, it was totally unexpected.” The incident left her emotionally numb initially, and years later, the memory haunted her, impacting her work, including preparing for surgeries.

This pervasive issue of silence surrounding such misconduct has been acknowledged widely. Surgical training relies on learning from senior colleagues, making it risky for women to speak out against those who hold power over their careers.

A report, published in the British Journal of Surgery, offers a glimpse into the scale of the problem, based on anonymous responses from 1,434 registered surgeons, both men and women.

Shockingly, the findings reveal a distressing reality:

  • 63% of women experienced sexual harassment from colleagues.
  • 30% of women suffered sexual assault by colleagues.
  • 11% of women reported forced physical contact linked to career prospects.
  • At least 11 incidents of rape were reported.
  • 90% of women and 81% of men witnessed some form of sexual misconduct.

While the report acknowledges that men also face such behaviour (24% reported sexual harassment), it concludes that male and female surgeons exist in distinct realities. Dr. Christopher Begeny from the University of Exeter believes these findings could erode public confidence in the surgical profession.

Simultaneously, a second report titled “Breaking the Silence: Addressing Sexual Misconduct in Healthcare” offers recommendations for change. These reports suggest that the hierarchical structure of surgery, combined with a relatively lower proportion of female surgeons (around 28%), grants some men significant power, which combines dangerously with the high-pressure surgical environment.

Prof. Carrie Newlands, a consultant surgeon from the University of Surrey, underscores that the most common scenario involves junior female trainees being abused by senior male perpetrators, often their supervisors, leading to a culture of silence.

A lack of faith

Data also reveals a lack of faith in institutions such as NHS Trusts, the General Medical Council, and the Royal Colleges to address the issue effectively. Prof. Newlands calls for external and independent investigation processes to rebuild trust and ensure healthcare becomes a safer workplace.

Tim Mitchell, the president of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, acknowledges the gravity of the problem and emphasises the need for a culture of zero tolerance.

Dr. Binta Sultan, from NHS England, recognises the urgency for action to make hospitals safe for all, citing the need for support and clear reporting mechanisms.

The General Medical Council has updated its professional standards, making it clear that acting inappropriately towards patients or colleagues is unacceptable. Yet, the question remains: is surgery a safe place for women to work today? Judith’s response is poignant: “Not always. And that’s a dreadful thing to have to admit.”

 

 

 

 

Amelia Brand is the Editor for HRreview, and host of the HR in Review podcast series. With a Master’s degree in Legal and Political Theory, her particular interests within HR include employment law, DE&I, and wellbeing within the workplace. Prior to working with HRreview, Amelia was Sub-Editor of a magazine, and Editor of the Environmental Justice Project at the University College London, writing and overseeing articles into UCL’s weekly newsletter. Her previous academic work has focused on philosophy, politics and law, with a special focus on how artificial intelligence will feature in the future.