More to do in fight against sexism

BMA pledge to end sexism event hears of extensive abuse in healthcare organisations

Location: UK
Published: Tuesday 13 February 2024
Tamzin cuming

Failure to address sexism in medicine is letting doctors down, undermining the health service and could ultimately jeopardise patient care the BMA has warned.

The fight to end gender-based discrimination and sexual misconduct within the medical profession must be regarded as the responsibility of all doctors, an event at BMA House this week [7 February] heard.

The meeting, which was chaired by deputy chair of BMA council Emma Runswick, sought to reflect upon the impact of the BMA’s Ending Sexism in Medicine pledge.

The pledge, which was launched almost one year ago, outlines 10 goals which include ending sexual harassment, promoting gender diversity in medicine and supporting women’s health in the workplace.

With 66 healthcare organisations having so far signed-up to the pledge, Dr Runswick stressed the importance of increasing this number in order to further ‘build consensus around ideas and actions that we can take to end sexism in medicine.’


Sexual assault

Those speaking at the event included consultant colorectal surgeon and chair of the Women in Surgery Forum Tamzin Cuming, who also helped co-found the working party on sexual misconduct in surgery.

A survey published last year by the working group revealed that a third of female surgical staff responding to the study had been sexually assaulted by colleagues in the workplace.

Ms Cuming said that while the BMA’s pledge and the working party’s report had helped to widen the conversation on tackling sexism in medicine, far more still needed to be done if further progress was to be made and called for better data collection on reports of sexual misconduct and recourse to independent investigations of complaints.

She said: ‘We need to get over health care organisations’ problem with admitting [sexism and sexual misconduct] is happening, we now know that this is happening everywhere. If you don’t think it’s happening in your organisation, it means you just haven’t looked hard enough.

‘Often when the alleged perpetrator is a senior person with power in the organisation, and the person reporting is powerless, like a junior doctor or medical students, it is easy for them [employers] to close it down.

‘There needs to be a way of getting this to an external independent investigator, possibly using anonymous reporting to try and build up an image of what is happening in various areas within healthcare organisations.’


Gender experience

GP and Muslim Doctors Association chair Hina J Shahid spoke about how addressing women’s health needs in the workplace was a critical part of addressing sexism.

Dr Shahid also emphasised the importance of taking an intersectional approach to understanding gender discrimination, highlighting how, in many instances, factors such as ethnicity, religion and sexuality also played a role.

She said: ‘We know that people who embody [protected] characteristics often don’t just have one in isolation. For somebody like me, I’m female, I’m also an ethnic minority. for Muslim women who wear the headscarf, who are visibly Muslim, that there’s an added barrier there as well.

‘We [need to] use that intersectional lens to understand the experience of experiences and multi marginalised women.’

Other speakers at the event included consultant trauma and orthopaedic surgeon Verona Beckles who spoke about the many challenges she had experienced during her career due to her gender and ethnicity.


Phil banfield - end sexism BANFIELD: Men should be allies

The meeting also heard from foundation doctor and Melanin Medics founder Olamide Oguntimehin about how structural inequality in the medical profession impacted women doctors’ career progression. 

In his closing remarks, BMA council chair Phil Banfield reiterated that the association’s pledge was not ‘a symbolic gesture’ but a ‘concrete call for action’ to bring about a permanent change within medicine.

He said: ‘It’s clear that there are still fundamental differences in the career experiences of doctors and medical students based on their gender. This simply can’t be tolerated. And if we don’t address sexism, we’re not only at risk of losing a whole doctor cohort from our professional, but we're letting our colleagues down.

‘Inclusion and diversity in medicine is our strength. It’s essential for the provision of safe patient care. It's our collective responsibility to create a safe environment where individuals feel secure in reporting sexism, and sexual misconduct assured that cases will be investigated, and that justice will be delivered.’

He added: ‘I can’t emphasise enough how important it is that not just women do the work creating change. It is vital that men play a role by being allies to those who are impacted by sexism. Men must be active bystanders and call out poor behaviour.’

The Ending Sexism in Medicine pledge was the culmination of long-standing work by the BMA to better understand and address the issue of gender-based discrimination and sexual misconduct within the medical profession.

This work includes the association’s 2021 sexism in medicine survey, which revealed that 91 per cent of women doctors and medical students responding to the study had experienced sexism during the previous two years.

Since its launch last year, numerous organisations have committed themselves to the pledge including NHS Employers, NHS Providers, the Royal College of Emergency Medicine and Royal College of Anaesthetists.