The differing realities experienced by men and women in the surgical workforce

by Emily Sams

A trainee surgeon in Wales, reflects on the disturbing findings of a recent sexual misconduct in surgery report and how hierarchical structures have enabled it to continue

Location: Wales
Published: Friday 22 September 2023
Emily sams

Sadly, the results of the Working Party on Sexual Misconduct in Surgery survey should be entirely predictable to those working in the medical profession. Those who are shocked have simply not been paying attention.

Comments made by a retired male anesthetist seeking to justify and play down the findings, serves to highlight that sexual harassment and sexual assault among colleagues in the surgical workforce happens, and men and women in the surgical workforce are living different realities.

The male-dominated senior workforce and strong hierarchical structures found in surgical teams make them particularly vulnerable for sexual misconduct to go unchecked. Seniority in surgical teams comes with power and responsibility.  

There are some senior colleagues who have been allowed to get away with reveling in the former while neglecting the latter, leading to far-reaching ramifications.

Allowing sexual misconduct to flourish in the workplace results in working environments that are unsafe. Furthermore, witnessing or being a target of sexual misconduct has the potential to deter or derail a woman from pursuing a career in surgery.

Respondents to the survey found that the accountable organisations were largely inadequate in dealing with sexual misconduct. It is historically proven that a reluctance to hear concerns contributes to a culture of silence.

This is where our work needs to improve in order to build working environments where all members of the team feel safe. Accountable organisations need to provide more than lip-service statements of 'zero-tolerance policies'.

These do nothing to provide victims, or indeed witnesses, of sexual misconduct with the confidence required to report their experiences. We need to foster a supportive framework whereby trainees can report incidences of sexual misconduct without fear of repercussions to their training and future career progression.

This is why we’re urging all medical organisations in Wales including employers and medical schools to take urgent action to eradicate sexual misconduct. This includes better systems to report these behaviours, better support for victims, swifter action for perpetrators and creating a more professional environment to deter this from happening in the first place.

The BMA’s ‘sexism in medicine pledge’ sets out its expectations for employers, institutions and organisations to establish gender equality in the workplace where everyone can feel safe and supported to develop their medical careers without fear of reporting sexual harassment or misconduct.

We urge heath boards, universities and employers to sign up to the pledge to create safe, professional working environments for all.

For anyone affected by sexual misconduct, the BMA’s support and well-being services are available for all doctors 24 hours a day.


Emily Sams is deputy chair of the Welsh junior doctors committee and a surgeon in training in Wales