Sexual harassment at work

We define sexual harassment, legal protections against it in the workplace, and the impact it has on doctors and medical students.

Location: UK
Audience: All doctors
Updated: Monday 7 September 2020
Discrimination crossed out circle illustration
How we can help

The BMA is committed to addressing all forms of bullying and harassment in the medical profession. If you are a BMA member who is affected by sexual harassment at work, you can contact us at any time to talk through the issues.


For advice and information contact 0300 123 123 3 or email us.

Research suggests that 40% of women and 18% of men have experienced some form of unwanted sexual behaviour in the workplace, ranging from unwelcome jokes or comments of a sexual nature to serious sexual assault.

It is not known exactly how widespread the problem of sexual harassment is in medicine. UK reported figures are low however it is believed that the majority of incidents go unreported. One study in the US found that around 30% of female medical academics had experienced it. It has also been a problem in the surgical specialty in Australia.


What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment occurs when an individual engages in unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature. It has the purpose or effect of:

  • violating someone’s dignity or
  • creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive working environment for the individual concerned.

Sexual harassment is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010.

Conduct can still be considered sexual harassment even if the alleged harasser didn't intend for it to be. Sexual harassment can still occur even if the conduct is not directly targeted at the other person. For example, the display of pornography in a work environment or sexual comments about women may create a degrading, intimidating or hostile working environment for co-workers who see or overhear them.

When considering the effect of behaviour on someone, it is important to view things from their point of view. It is important to remember that it may be difficult, especially for a junior colleague, to speak up and challenge unwanted behaviour.

Sexual harassment can include:

  • Written or verbal comments of a sexual nature including remarks about an employee's appearance, questions about their sex life, offensive jokes;
  • Propositions, advances or making promises in return for sexual favours
  • Emails/social media messaging with content of a sexual nature
  • Displaying pornographic or explicit images
  • Unwanted physical contact and touching
  • Criminal behaviour, including sexual assault, stalking, indecent exposure and offensive communications


Examples of sexual harassment

  1. On a weekly ward round the consultant regularly makes sexually explicit comments directed at a female trainee in front of the team. She feels mortified and when she responds asking him to stop, he says: ‘Can’t you take a joke?’
  2. A professor invites a female student to his office and touches her knee. She thinks it must be accidental, however on another appointment, he repeats the touching. She feels repulsed and frightened and is anxious to leave as soon as possible.


The impact of sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is a serious workplace issue which can have lasting effects on those who experience it. It is sometimes dismissed as being “banter”. But it is not a joke.

Sexual harassment often has the effect of making the recipient feel ashamed, humiliated, undermined and frightened and can have a lasting impact on mental health and careers. Women are more likely to experience sexual harassment than men. Women doctors who have experienced it report that it has undermined their confidence in themselves as professionals and negatively affected their careers.

Workplaces where a culture of sexual harassment is allowed to flourish are unattractive and intimidating for women. Such behaviour can act as a barrier to women entering male dominated areas of medicine. Sexual harassment may drive those experiencing it to switch specialties or even to leave medicine altogether.


Further resources

The BMA has a programme aimed at raising awareness of bullying and harassment at local and national levels, seeking changes in employer practices and organisational cultures.

ACAS guidance on making a complaint about sexual harassment and getting support

BMA guidance on bullying and harassment

BMJ e-learning module on Preventing bullying and harassment

The Equality and Human Rights Commission publishes a range of resources for employees and employers on sexual harassment in the workplace.

The BMJ /Student BMJ have featured articles on sexual harassment:

Medical students stand up to sexual harassment, Brill D, Student BMJ, 2016

Sexual harassment of women in medicine: a problem for men to address, Launer, J, BMJ Journal