In the past five years, nearly one in three female surgeons within the NHS have experienced sexual assault, marking a sobering revelation that’s been described as a “#MeToo movement for surgery.” A study by the British Journal of Surgery, which was shared with the BBC and The Times, reported 11 instances of rape among participating surgeons.
The survey results lay bare the pervasive nature of the problem, with 30 per cent of female surgeons disclosing incidents of sexual assault and 29 per cent experiencing unwanted physical advances at work. Moreover, over 40 per cent of female surgeons expressed being subjected to unsolicited comments about their bodies, and 38 per cent enduring sexual “banter” in the workplace. Shockingly, almost 90 per cent of women admitted to witnessing sexual misconduct within the past five years.
The report’s grim conclusion is that sexual misconduct occurs frequently within the surgical environment, going largely unchecked. The reasons behind this alarming allegation are attributed to the deep hierarchies and gender and power imbalances within the field—a disappointing truth that has ultimately created an unsafe working environment for both staff and patients.
Anne, whose true identity remains concealed for legal reasons, came forward to speak with the BBC, driven by a firm belief that change can only be achieved when people are willing to share their experiences.
While Anne refrains from categorising her traumatic experience as rape, she is resolute in stating that the sexual encounter was non-consensual. This disturbing incident unfolded at a social gathering linked to a medical conference. The distressing pattern was all too familiar: Anne, a trainee, found herself entangled with a consultant.
“I trusted him, I looked up to him,” Anne recalled, describing her relationship with the senior colleague. He capitalised on her trust, sowing doubt about the other attendees’ trustworthiness due to her lack of familiarity with them.
The woman continued: “So, he walked me back to the place I was staying, I thought he wanted to talk and yet he just suddenly turned on me and he had sex with me.”
The aftermath of this traumatic incident left Anne emotionally numb. Over the years, the memory continued to haunt her.
The study, which was conducted by the University of Exeter and based on responses from 1,436 participants via an anonymous online survey, was commissioned by the working party on sexual misconduct in surgery—a collective of NHS surgeons, clinicians, and researchers dedicated to raising awareness of this issue and driving cultural and organisational change.
This disconcerting revelation also comes in the wake of a Guardian/British Medical Journal investigation in May, which unveiled over 35,600 recorded “sexual safety incidents” in NHS hospitals in England over the past five years. Consequently, the General Medical Council issued a call for doctors to adopt a policy of “zero tolerance” toward sexual harassment.
Tamzin Cuming, a consultant surgeon who chairs the Women in Surgery forum at the Royal College of Surgeons of England, described to The Guardian how the report was a watershed moment for the field, emphasising the urgency of revamping oversight mechanisms within healthcare to address the issue effectively.
Cuming called for the establishment of a national implementation panel to oversee the report’s recommendations and the independent investigation of incidents of sexual misconduct. She noted the anger and frustration within the profession, urging comprehensive change.
The findings have been presented to NHS England, the General Medical Council, and the British Medical Association. NHS England expressed concern and emphasised the need for action to ensure hospitals are safe for all.
The report reveals a disturbing pattern of junior female trainees facing abuse by senior male surgeons, often their supervisors. This pervasive issue has far-reaching consequences, as trainees fear that reporting such incidents will adversely affect their careers and lack confidence in the NHS’s willingness to take action.
The findings of the study underscore the urgent necessity for external and independent investigative procedures to instil trust and enhance the safety of healthcare workplaces. This emphasises the importance of fostering a culture of zero tolerance and establishing robust mechanisms that empower survivors to step forward, report incidents, and ensure their grievances are treated with the utmost seriousness.