'I’m an NHS doctor and I’ve been sexually assaulted by my male colleagues – I’m far from the only one'

·5-min read
Photo credit: Solskin - Getty Images
Photo credit: Solskin - Getty Images

It took a few years working as a doctor before I realised there was something very wrong with how I and other female colleagues were being treated by the men working alongside us.

Straight out of medical school, I spent two years rotating around various hospitals, trying out different specialities and getting a feel for life on the wards, before joining my current team. I was immediately in awe of the dedication I saw in those around me. Our days were tough, working long shifts and in challenging circumstances, but helping our patients kept us going. It was a massive deal in my family that I became a doctor – no one I knew had been to university – and I was excited to join a profession that enabled me to care for others and make a change.

Looking back, I now see it wasn’t quite the team I thought it was.

Derogatory comments about our appearance were commonplace. Snide remarks intended to embarrass us were normalised. Unwanted physical touching became expected.

Female staff were frequently warned about which male colleagues to be wary of. ‘Don't go in a room alone with this consultant’. ‘Make sure you're not in the locker room with that surgeon’. Comments like these were whispered to us by female colleagues as we passed in the corridor.

At the time, we didn’t really stop to process how wrong these situations were, and there was no safe space in which to spotlight such behaviour. We figured we just had to shut up and put up with it, and we were too busy focusing on our patients to overthink it.

As a junior doctor, I was groped by a consultant at a conference and seriously sexually assaulted by another doctor. Having to spend all day, every day in the same environment that I’d been assaulted in was traumatic.

The abuse I suffered at the hands of male colleagues impacted my career regardless of whether I spoke out or not. Because, while we had supervisors to whom we were supposed to go with any concerns, these are most often consultants – many of them men. The medical profession is a small, interconnected world, hospitals even more so, and the medical field is a deeply patriarchal institution.

According to NHS figures, 66% of consultants are men and 54% of chief executive or director roles in the NHS are held by men. We all knew that if we raised a complaint to one consultant, they were most likely friends with our abuser – or worse, they were the one doing it in the first place.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

Eventually, struggling to cope, I dropped out of surgical training and moved into general practice instead. Moving away from the physical location in which my abuse took place helped to a degree, but my mental health suffered. I took months off work and had therapy to process and cope.

That’s why I decided to launch a campaign with my colleague Dr Chelcie Jewitt, to prevent what happened to me from happening to other women in the NHS. Surviving in Scrubs is exposing the sexism that so many are dealing with when they go to work in the NHS to care for patients every day.

As part of the campaign, we're encouraging women and non-binary people from all ethnic backgrounds and with all physical abilities working in our field to come forward and share their story. So far, we’ve had 95 submissions, which really shows the scope of this problem. We want a safe reporting scheme within the NHS that is independently run so victims don’t have to put their career at risk by lodging a complaint.

We’re meeting with the General Medical Council (GMC) to ask them to update their guidance for doctors to explicitly include that misogyny will not be tolerated. Currently, the only guidance is for doctors to “behave respectfully” – with zero clarity on what that means. The Royal Colleges also need to implement change in medical schools, educating students on abuse and sexism at work. Change can only happen from the ground up.

Previous research has shown that as many as 90% of female doctors have suffered sexism at work, with 31% having reported unwanted physical conduct and 47% expressing that they feel they've been treated less favourably due to their gender – but until now, women haven't had a place to speak up nor have they been listened to when they have. Sexism and abuse is a societal issue, yes, but it’s also an NHS issue – and we won’t stop telling our stories until it has been stamped out.

In response to Cosmopolitan UK's request for comment, Professor Colin Melville, medical director and director for education and standards at the GMC, said: "Hearing the accounts from survivors who were sexually assaulted in a medical environment is harrowing and appalling and we absolutely condemn any such behaviour. There can be no place for misogyny, sexism or any form of sexual harassment in the medical profession.

"That’s why the current consultation on our core guidance for doctors, Good medical practice, sets out a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment and includes for the first time two explicit duties for doctors; that any form of abuse or discrimination is unacceptable, and a requirement to act and support others if they witness or learn of harassment, bullying or discrimination.

"Our proposals incorporate evidence from recent reports, women’s organisations and other experts. We encourage anyone with lived experiences to share their insights by participating in the consultation."

Cosmopolitan UK has reached out to NHS England and the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges for comment.

Dr Becky Cox and Dr Chelcie Jewitt thank all those who have submitted their stories, and continue to encourage others to share their own. Read more about the Surviving in Scrubs campaign, and submit your own story, here.

For help with any of the issues discussed in this article, visit: Rape Crisis England & Wales, Rape Crisis Scotland, or Rape Crisis Northern Ireland. RASASC provides emotional and practical support for survivors, families and friends.

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