Sexism persists despite our best efforts

by David Wrigley

Following the publication of a BMA report in sexism in the workplace it is ever more apparent that everyone should have the right to work free from bias

Location: UK
Last reviewed: 26 August 2021
david wrigley

British-born physician Elizabeth Blackwell, who in 1849 became the first woman to receive a medical degree from an American university, once noted that a society that would not ‘admit of woman’s free development’ was one that needed to be remodelled.

In the more than 170 years since Dr Blackwell gained her qualification, both society and the medical profession have undergone significant remodelling and change.

Women doctors now account for almost half of the entire medical workforce in today’s NHS, with the number of registered woman GPs exceeding that of their counterparts who are men by almost 8,000.

Yet despite the enormous advances that have been made in increasing gender equality in medicine, outdated attitudes and structural disadvantages persist within both medical education and workplaces, meaning that gender-based discrimination and bias is still a reality for many doctors.

A BMA-commissioned survey of more than 2,500 doctors has exposed the extent to which many women in medicine feel that they are disadvantaged and denied equality in everything from access to training opportunities and career progression to inadequate respect and recognition of their skills and experience by both patients and colleagues.

Among its findings were shocking statistics such as the fact that 31 per cent and 37 per cent of responding women doctors said they had either experienced sexism directly or witnessed it in the past two years.

The survey also heard the numerous personal testimonies of these doctors’ experiences.

We heard of the account of one woman junior doctor who, while operating on a patient, was asked by a senior colleague if she would be willing to give him a massage. This is an example of sexual harassment and is completely unacceptable. These types of comments and actions are far more likely to be directed at women although it can occur towards men.

The survey also heard examples of more passive aggressive, yet no less pernicious, forms of sexism.

This includes the consultant who recalled the occasion when, following the review of a patient, she and an SHO, who was a man, were approached by another man, a consultant, who proceeded to utterly ignore his woman colleague and direct all his questions to her junior colleague.

Giving woman doctors opportunities and platforms to speak out and highlight their experiences of discrimination are absolutely vital in the effort to address systemic sexism in medicine and the health service.

In doing so however, it is equally critical that doctors who are men do not fall into the trap of complacently believing that because sexism overwhelmingly disadvantages women that it is somehow a ‘women’s issue’, rather than a matter that all members of the profession should be concerned about.

Challenging sexism requires more than just solidarity with our women colleagues. It requires doctors who are men to recognise that misconceptions and stereotypes about gender can be damaging to men as well as to women.

Frequent polling shows that increased access to flexible working is important to doctors of all genders, despite this fact being at odds with the stereotype that men in the medical profession are more concerned with their career than raising a family.

Sexism and biased thinking can also negatively affect our collective ability to care for patients.

At a time when the NHS is facing enormous challenges both to its workforce and through a mountainous backlog of unmet care needs, it is critical that everyone is able to contribute their skills and experience to the fullest extent.

Everyone should have the right to work and train free from biases, and we simply cannot afford to be preventing talented women from either joining or progressing within the medical profession, nor can we afford to lose women from the workforce because of sexism.

Bringing about any sort of societal change invariably requires the involvement of all members of that society for it to be both meaningful and sustainable.

As men we can no longer tell ourselves that silently condemning instances of sexism that we may witness in our workplaces or offering our private assurances and allyship to affected women colleagues is sufficient.

Lasting change will only occur once we recognise that we must play an active not passive role in identifying, calling-out and addressing gender inequality wherever we find it.

David Wrigley is BMA deputy council chair

Read the report