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I was sexually harassed as a junior by senior doctors: it still goes on, and it needs to stop

BMJ 2013; 347 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.f6302 (Published 21 October 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f6302
  1. Anonymous

Sexual discrimination and harassment still occur in the clinical workplace. A doctor, who was advised to write anonymously, says that more must be done to find out the extent of the problem and protect those affected

As sexual scandal swirled around prelates, politicians, pop stars, and even school pupils, I read an article in Medical Education about students’ most memorable professional dilemmas.1 Most, depressingly, involved witnessing unprofessional and callous behaviour by their clinician teachers. Some involved being bullied; others involved undertaking intimate examinations without valid consent; but one in particular resonated with me.

During a ward round, a young male consultant spotted a female student and said: “You there—the decoration. Why did you ever come to medical school? Do you have a brain in that pretty head? What you need to do is put down that Heat magazine, climb out of bed with your boyfriend, and do some work.”

I had hoped that such experiences were a thing of the past. As a student I remember a macho surgeon who took a particular delight in humiliating female medical students. One ward round, smirking, he asked me to examine a male patient who was due to have an operation. The man was asked to undress completely. With obvious reluctance, he acquiesced. Gingerly, I began to examine his groin as the group of students circled round him. He began to have an erection. The surgeon hurriedly ushered us out without apologising to the patient, who was left naked, humiliated, and abandoned.

But worse was to come. As a junior house officer I worked for surgeons who were kind and helpful towards me. I was considered bright and conscientious. But all this changed when I was moved to another team. This consultant openly declared his prejudice towards women in medicine. The ward rounds were purgatorial. He would regularly find ways to criticise or humiliate me or make unreasonable requests. In the operating theatres he would habitually launch into diatribes against female doctors. Meanwhile, he joked with and hugged the female theatre nursing staff. Once in theatre I remember he made an offensive remark about the size of my breasts. There was a frozen silence. Everyone in the room realised that this time he had gone too far. But I just bit my lip, suppressed the tears, and carried on. I still remember the rage of that humiliation. Luckily I did not suffer from low self esteem or a lack of interest from the opposite sex. But what if the opposite had been true?

When I was a medical registrar, one of the (male) consultants made a proposal (in a sober state) at a work related social event. In essence it was: if you sleep with me, I will help you in your career advancement. I was shaken. It was disturbing but also disheartening—is this really how it works? Frankly, the idea of going to bed with him was repugnant to me, but how was I to extricate myself without endangering my position? I felt cornered and coerced. I quickly chose the course of fake naivety. I pretended that I had not heard the proposal and smiled sweetly, changing the subject. But it left me with profound unease and a sense of disempowerment and disillusion.

I suspect that the problem of misogyny and sexual harassment towards learners and colleagues is alive and well in the clinical professions, and, as elsewhere, there is probably corporate collusion. No doubt some top clinicians are known for their predilection for pretty students and young doctors or nurses and for their predatory behaviours, but complicity and secrecy maintain the status quo. And from anecdotes I have heard, it can be women who abuse their power as well. It is power that is the common factor.

These individuals can control our future and ruin our careers. I did not speak up because I did not know where to go for support. Who would have listened? Would I have been labeled as a troublemaker, a pathetic woman who could not take the heat? Even now, if a young doctor or student makes a complaint, will it be taken seriously? What if the abusers occupy very powerful positions, as mine did? They can haul in heavyweight lawyers and sue for libel, threatening their victims with further humiliation and huge costs.

A recent survey of 12 195 students at 126 medical schools in the United States found that 47% had experienced some form of mistreatment and 15.9% had experienced sexual harassment or discrimination.2 Other countries such as Finland3 and Japan4 have also reported similar findings for medical students and junior doctors. Under-reporting is the rule. It would be astonishing if the situation were significantly different in the United Kingdom, although “undermining” appears to be low according to the General Medical Council 2012 national training survey.5 How you ask the question is important, and despite determined institutional efforts to eradicate the problem, it can remain stubbornly persistent.6 As we know, the culture is very powerful and abuse can readily be normalised.

Like the student in the Medical Education article, I considered giving up medicine and, like her, though I thought of myself as a strong person, I could not defend myself. My experiences probably played a role in my leaving hospital medicine and opting for general practice (where thankfully I was no longer subjected to harassment). Even 30 years later I still feel anger towards the surgeon who systematically humiliated and bullied me. I look on with cynicism as this physician receives more yet accolades. These experiences can leave indelible scars. I am certain that mine were mild in comparison to some. There is another deeply troubling aspect: attitudes tend to seep into other domains. If you hold women in contempt or treat young learners as prey, how are you treating your patients?

The BMA or other medical institutions should survey medical students and doctors in training with validated questionnaires and other methods to find out whether sexual discrimination and harassment are still alive and well in 21st century clinical institutions.

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f6302

Footnotes

  • Competing interests: I have read and understood the BMJ Group policy on declaration of interests and have no relevant interests to declare.

  • Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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