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Sexual harassment in the NHS - medicine and #metoo

Woman doctor in a surgical mask

How widespread is sexual harassment in UK hospitals and doctors’ surgeries? Does the medical profession need its own #metoo movement?

The NHS is the world’s fifth largest employer, with 1.2 million staff in England alone - so it’s only realistic to assume that sexual harassment exists in some corners of its vast estate.

More alarming is the fact that, according to one report, sexual harassment and bullying in the NHS is on the rise.

One expert, Dr Anthea Mowat, of doctors’ union the British Medical Association (BMA), describes these findings as only the tip of the iceberg.

Sexual harassment definition

Sexual harassment is a form of unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act 2010.

It occurs if behaviour of a sexual nature is either meant to, or has the effect of: violating another person’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for someone.

Sexual harassment can take many forms and includes:

  • intrusive questions about a person’s private or sex life

  • sexual comments or jokes

  • propositions, including unwelcome sexual advances

  • touching, hugging, massaging or kissing.

“Crucially,” says Tim Johnson, Principal at Tim Johnson Law, “there is a gap in understanding between the sexes. So much turns on how the potential harassment is received.

“A man might think his behaviour is harmless, or he was only joking, but the law turns on the effect on the recipient, whether it was intended or not.”

According to a 2017 survey, 40% of women have experienced some form of sexual harassment at work.

The picture is not so clear in the medical profession.

A 2018 study by the BMA looked more widely at bullying and harassment in general. It found that two in five doctors say bullying and harassment are problems in their workplace.

It was less specific about sexual harassment, but quoted one trainee doctor as saying: “He constantly made comments about my legs.”

The BMA says cases of sexual harassment in the NHS are low, but its figures do not account for instances that go unreported. Nearly half of NHS staff surveyed as part of the BMA study said that victims of bullying and harassment are too afraid to speak out.

Elsewhere doctors have written in the national media about their experience of sexual harassment at work. The Student BMJ, the journal for the UK’s next generation of medics, says incidents are “common” and has called for medical schools to raise awareness of the issue.

“There has been little research into the true scale of the problem in medicine,” writes Dr John Launer, of NHS training and development body Health Education England.

However, one review of dozens of studies from around the world concluded “nearly 60% of medical students and trainees of all grades experience harassment or discrimination of some kind during their training, with females being targeted more than males.

“Consultants are the most common perpetrators, and sexual harassment is the most frequent form of abuse.”

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