Report into sexism shows need for a “cultural shift to a more equal, diverse and inclusive NHS” in Scotland

by BMA Scotland media team

Press release from BMA Scotland.

Location: Scotland
Published: Thursday 26 August 2021
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A report published today from the BMA on ‘Sexism in Medicine’ has shone a light on concerning levels of sexism and gender-based discrimination, not only in the medical profession, but also through the structures and institutions of NHS Scotland. 

The report is based on a wide ranging survey of doctors that asked respondents about: conduct of colleagues and patients, impact of gender on career progression, impact of having children and reporting on sexism.

More than 2,400 doctors from across all 4 nations of the UK, responded and described their experiences of being disadvantaged, doubted or undervalued, in their role as a doctor, based on their gender and the impact that this had on their career opportunities.  Key findings from the survey, in which over 70% of respondents were female, found:

  • Over 70% of Scottish respondents think there is an issue of sexism in the NHS.
  • Over three quarters of respondents think there is an issue of sexism in the medical profession in Scotland.
  • Over 65% of Scottish respondents believe that sexism has acted as a barrier to career progression.
  • More than half of respondents from Scotland believe that structural and institutional factors that disadvantage women are the main drivers of sexism in the NHS.

Speaking about the report, deputy chair of the BMA in Scotland, Dr Patricia Moultrie, said:

“The ‘Sexism in Medicine’ report has presented us with the stark reality of what many doctors are living with on a daily basis, gender based discrimination has no place in our health service and the figures from this recent survey make for challenging and uncomfortable reading for everybody. 

“The report goes some of the way to highlighting the detrimental impact that sexist behaviour is still having on the medical profession, preventing people from entering particular specialties, impacting on their health and wellbeing and discouraging them from living the work life balance they want and need. We can only hope that shining a light on these poor behaviours will allow for a cultural shift to a more equal, diverse and inclusive NHS. 

“Any kind of discrimination, whether they fit the frame of this particular study or not, must be challenged, called out and addressed.  It is only by listening to the difficult messages, and really hearing them, can we take the opportunity to be better and to do better.  If we are to properly eradicate gender inequality in the medical profession then a joined up approach is needed, changing the culture that enables these types of behaviours by redesigning structures and institutions that disproportionately reward a particular gender.

“This survey focuses only on sexism and gender-based discrimination and there is much more work to be done on understanding the experiences of those who can receive multiple forms of discrimination.  It is clear from this report that many women see their gender as a barrier to career progression; over 65% of Scottish respondents feeling that sexism has acted as a barrier to career progression, 38% feel they have had fewer opportunities in training than colleagues of a different gender and half believing that their career progression has been negatively impacted by their gender. 

“It is time to challenge the perception that certain specialties are only suitable for certain genders or require certain lifestyle choices.  Steps must be taken to challenge the gender norms that are continuing to impact doctors’ career progression, but alongside that we need to ensure that workplace polices are not unfairly impacting those who have caring responsibilities; that they are paid fairly and still offered equal opportunities for career progression.  If sexism and other forms of bias aren’t adequately addressed or the structure and institutional factors and attitudes changed then there is no doubt we’ll be putting the future sustainability of the whole workforce at risk.

“Sexist behaviour isn’t just being experienced within the medical profession, many of the respondents talked about unwanted physical and verbal conduct, as well as feeling that their clinical ability had been doubted or undervalued because of their gender, from patients and patient’s families.  It is so very disappointing that even in this day and age we need to challenge the perception that being a doctor is a male role, female doctors must be visibly represented throughout wider society and women’s voices and opinions within the medical profession not only listened to but also valued equally. 

“One of the most concerning  aspects of this survey is that there is a clear lack of trust in the system; people not only don’t believe that it will hold perpetrators of sexist behaviour to account but they fear, if they speak out, their career or relationships with colleagues will be negatively impacted.  If we do not understand the full extent of the problem then how can we ever hope to truly combat it?  There must be a zero-tolerance approach to unwanted verbal and physical conduct, regardless of whether it is a colleague or a patient who behaves in that manner.  There must be clear, consistent and visible guidance for doctors on what steps to take if they experience or witness sexist behaviour, ensuring that they are properly protected; it is only by talking and listening in a safe environment that we can encourage doctors to speak up and speak out, and take action so that sexism becomes a thing of the past.”

Notes to editors

BMA report ‘Sexism in Medicine

Scottish statistics:

  • 58% of respondents working in NHS Scotland felt that their clinical ability had been doubted or undervalued because of their gender, by another doctor or medical member of staff.
  • 35% of respondents felt that their clinical ability had been doubted or undervalued because of their gender, by a patient or their relative.
  • More than half of Scottish respondents believe that their career progression has been negatively impacted by their gender.
  • Over 42% of respondents experienced or witnessed an issue relating to sexism or sexist practice or behaviour, but did not raise it.
    • 52%  thought no action would be taken.
    • Over 33% feared it would negatively impact their career.
    • Over 53% feared it would negatively impact their relationship with colleagues.
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