Most women surgeons in England’s public hospitals have experienced sexual harrassment, while many say they have been assaulted and some even raped, a survey of hundreds of staff members has found.
Sexual misconduct was reported so widely in the survey that lawmakers have announced they will investigate the issue. Industry leaders, meanwhile, have called on hospitals to review the policies they have in place to protect their staff.
Around two-thirds of women surgeons (63%) said they’d been sexually harassed by colleagues at some point over the last five years, the study published Tuesday in the British Journal of Surgery revealed.
Just under a third (29%) reported sexual assault, while 0.8% said they had been raped, either at the workplace, or in a work context, over this period.
Men also reported significant levels of sexual misconduct, but at much lower rates than women. Nearly a quarter said they’d been sexually harassed, 7% reported sexual assault and 0.1% said they’d been raped by a colleague.
Women also reported witnessing sexual misconduct in a work context at a higher rate than men. Fewer said they felt confident that the industry bodies representing them and the hospitals they worked for could adequately handle sexual misconduct claims.
“These findings show that women and men in the surgical workforce are living different realities,” the study authors reported. “For women, being around colleagues is more often going to mean witnessing, and being a target of, sexual misconduct.”
Women surgeons revealed specific allegations of sexual misconduct to BBC News, including being touched inappropriately in the operating theatre and propositioned for sex at work parties.
One woman told the outlet that a senior surgeon wiped sweat from his brow onto her cleavage twice during a procedure, despite her offering to get him a towel. The incident, which she said took place early in her career, made her feel “dirty” and “humiliated.”
Retired surgeon Liz O’Riordan said she had been harassed many times over while working.
She told BBC News: “So many times I wanted to speak up but as a trainee surgeon your career depends on that man or woman harassing you, letting you operate, giving you operating time, saying you’ve reached all the competencies.”
Member of parliament and chair of the Health and Social Care Committee, Steve Brine, called the BJS survey revelations “shocking” in a statement and said the National Health Service “has a duty to ensure that hospitals are safe spaces for all staff to work in.”
He said the committee would investigate sexual misconduct as part of a wider probe into leadership in the NHS.
Industry leaders have expressed dismay over the revelations, with Royal College of Surgeons of England president Tim Mitchell calling them as “incredibly upsetting.”
He said in a statement: “When we have chosen careers in surgery to save lives, it is incredibly upsetting to know that so many of our colleagues’ lives have been so deeply affected, and in some cases destroyed, by this abhorrent behaviour.”
He added that there was “no place” in operating theatres — or indeed anywhere in the public heath service — for sexual misconduct.
Public hospitals, he said, “need to take a long, hard look at whether their policies and procedures for sexual misconduct are fit for purpose, as do regulating bodies.”