Female Surgeons in NHS Face Rampant Sexual Harassment

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A female surgeon is sitting on a chair.

A comprehensive analysis of NHS staff has revealed that female surgeons are experiencing sexual harassment, assault, and in some instances, rape by their colleagues. BBC has interviewed several women who reported being sexually assaulted in the operating theatre during surgeries. The study indicates a recurring pattern where female trainees are victimized by senior male surgeons in NHS hospitals.

The Royal College of Surgeons has expressed shock at these findings, labeling them as “truly shocking.” The research, conducted by the University of Exeter, the University of Surrey, and the Working Party on Sexual Misconduct in Surgery, was shared exclusively with the BBC. The findings suggest that sexual harassment, assault, and rape are considered an “open secret” in the surgical field. 

Disturbing accounts from female surgeons include being inappropriately touched inside their surgical scrubs, male surgeons using their breasts to wipe sweat, and instances where male colleagues pressed their erections against female staff. Some women even reported being propositioned with career advancements in exchange for sexual favors.

Many women expressed reluctance in reporting these incidents due to fears of career repercussions and a lack of faith in the NHS’s response. One surgeon, referred to as Judith for anonymity, shared a harrowing experience where a senior male surgeon wiped his sweat on her breasts during a procedure. Another, named Anne (a pseudonym), recounted a non-consensual sexual encounter with a consultant during a medical conference event. 

The culture of silence surrounding such misconduct is pervasive. Surgical training heavily depends on mentorship from senior colleagues, making it risky for trainees to speak out against those who hold significant influence over their futures. The report, soon to be published in the British Journal of Surgery, is the first of its kind to gauge the extent of the issue.

Of the 1,434 surgeons who responded anonymously, half were women. The findings showed that 63% of female respondents had faced sexual harassment from colleagues, 30% had been sexually assaulted by a colleague, 11% reported forced physical contact linked to career opportunities, and at least 11 rape incidents were reported. While some male surgeons also reported harassment (24%), the study concluded that male and female surgeons experience vastly different realities. 

Dr. Christopher Begeny from the University of Exeter commented that these findings could potentially shake public trust in the surgical profession. Another report, titled “Breaking the Silence: Addressing Sexual Misconduct in Healthcare,” offers recommendations for change. It suggests that the hierarchical nature of surgery, combined with the low proportion of female surgeons (around 28%), allows some men to misuse their power, especially in the high-pressure environment of surgery.  

Prof. Carrie Newlands from the University of Surrey emphasized the need for a significant shift in investigation processes to ensure external and independent inquiries. The British Medical Association labeled the findings as “atrocious,” and the president of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, Tim Mitchell, admitted that the issue has been overlooked for too long.

Dr. Binta Sultan from NHS England acknowledged the need for more robust support and reporting mechanisms for those affected by harassment or inappropriate behavior. The General Medical Council recently updated its professional standards for doctors, emphasizing that any form of sexual misconduct is unacceptable.  

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