Sexism in medicine: a closer look at the situation in Wales

Discrimination based on gender is linked to a culture of fear that prevents people from coming forward

Location: Wales
Published: Thursday 26 August 2021

The BMA’s UK-wide survey of doctors exposed a concerning level of sexism in medicine with 91% of female doctors confirming they have experienced sexism at work with 42% feeling they could not report it. 

'The results shine a light on the prevalence of sexism in the workplace,' says Bethan Roberts, a GP in Wales.

'People will have had very different experiences and so it’s important for the survey results to be publicised - just because something is invisible to some doesn't mean it isn't happening at all.'

The picture in Wales is in line with the UK-wide results with 86% of Welsh doctors agreeing there is an issue of sexism in the NHS and 70% saying this acts as a barrier to career progression.

Why is sexism so prevalent in the NHS?

Beth Roberts ROBERTS: NHS tolerates poor behaviour

In Wales 88% of respondents said they felt structural and institutional factors that disadvantage women are the main drivers of sexism in the NHS in Wales.

Dr Bethan Roberts agrees with this but also attributes sexism to a wider culture of fear of repercussion for addressing issues.

She says: 'I think sexist attitudes and behaviours are most likely a combination of NHS structures tolerating sexist behaviour by individuals, junior doctors rotating out of hostile work environments - resulting in a reliance on staff moving out of departments rather than fixing the problem – and a reluctance by junior doctors to raise concerns for fear of this impacting negatively on career progression.'

What does sexism look like in the NHS?

Doctors in Wales shared their experiences of sexism and whilst accounts vary there were a lot of similarities. These included receiving patronising comments, being judged on their appearance, being overlooked in their career progression, or being ignored by patients and other doctors in favour of their male colleagues.

One doctor said: 'Preferring opinions of male members of the department over mine. One guy said ‘relax dear’ when I confronted him about discharging a sick patient without my knowledge.'

Another commented: 'On numerous occasions I’ve heard ‘X’ speciality isn’t good for women, especially if you want a family etc. I very frequently get mistaken by patients for nursing staff, often despite introducing myself as a doctor.'

Another example of sexist behaviour included the following account: 'I was once told my place was in the home and raising kids and I’d soon get bored of being a doctor. Endless mansplaining in handovers with male members of the team endlessly talking over the females and making the same exact point after a female has said it.'

What needs to change?

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Welsh GP Dr Bethan Roberts thinks a lack of training and awareness of discrimination is one of the main reasons that this behaviour still exists, and she believes this needs to be addressed.

She says: 'Equality and diversity training should be both mandatory and meaningful for all in the NHS, but equality and diversity discussions should ideally begin at an early age so that we all know how to behave with respect towards others, irrespective of the number of protected characteristics we or others might possess.'

Manish Adke, member of BMA Cymru Wales consultants committee and co-chair of the BAME forum in Wales agrees, he said: 'I had my concerns for many years about discrimination on gender and sex. Sadly, this survey has just confirmed my observations which I feared for years.

'We, as the BMA, must engage with employers to eliminate the sexism and gender inequality within NHS by improving education, training, support and raising awareness.

'It is also important to have a defined mechanism through which staff can raise concerns regarding discrimination and appropriate actions are taken against those who are continue to discriminate colleagues.

'Female gender pay inequality is a direct manifestation of discrimination in career progression, lack of opportunities given to female staff and male dominant culture in NHS. We need to work together to eliminate all forms of discrimination and make NHS safer place to work.'

Rachel podolak PODOLAK: Education is key

Rachel Podolak, National Director, BMA Cymru Wales added: 'To make meaningful and effective changes now, NHS employers should focus on educating staff to improve behaviour as part of our wider work to introduce the new  respect and resolution policy; creating a better working culture for all members of the NHS Wales workforce.'

BMA members who have been victims of sexist behaviours and unwanted verbal or physical contact to contact us for advice and support. We also offer a free and confidential BMA Wellbeing service, open to all doctors and medical students regardless of BMA membership.