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: Thursday 26 August 2021
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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.

 

Our 24/7 BMA Wellbeing support services are free and confidential and can be reached on 0330 123 1245. These services are always open to all doctors and medical students and their dependents regardless of BMA membership status.

Sexism in medicine report

A survey of 2,458 doctors by the BMA in 2021 shows that 91% of women doctors in the UK have experienced sexism at work with 42% feeling they could not report it. Respondents of all genders said they felt there was an issue of sexism in the medical profession.

Women who took part in the survey told us that they suffer patronising comments, are being judged on their appearance, can be overlooked in their career progression or are ignored by patients and other doctors in favour of their male colleagues.

The survey found that:

Career progression

  • 28% of men respondents said that they have/had more opportunities during training because of their gender, compared to 1% of women respondents
  • 61% of women respondents felt they were discouraged to work in a particular specialty because of their gender with 39% going on to decide not to work in that speciality
  • 70% of women respondents felt that their clinical ability had been doubted or undervalued because of their gender, compared to 4% of men respondents
  • 54% of all respondents thought that sexism acts as a barrier to career progression

Sexual harassment

  • 31% of women and 23% of men respondents experienced unwanted physical conduct in their workplace
  • 56% of women and 28% of men respondents received unwanted verbal conduct related to their gender

Reporting sexist behaviours and sexual harassment

  • 42% of all respondents who witnessed or experienced an issue relating to sexism felt they couldn’t report it

This short, animated video presents the key findings with some quotes from doctors who responded to the survey about their experiences.

 

The Mend the Gap: Independent Review into Gender Pay Gaps in Medicine in England showed similar findings on the culture and behaviours that drive sexism in medicine. Our commentary explains how the BMA is taking forward the recommendations in the review.

 

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

 

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

Bullying and harassment

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

BMA guidance on bullying and harassment

BMJ e-learning module on Preventing bullying and harassment

Sexual harassment

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

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

Further information

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

Sexual harassment and suicide (Editorial), Sarkar, Hemmat and Linos; BMJ Journal, 2020