Almost one in three female surgeons have been sexually assaulted

Representing a ‘#MeToo moment’ for the NHS, a recent survey has uncovered a pattern of female trainees being abused by senior male surgeons during the past five years in operating theatres across the UK.

Thred Media
3 min readSep 14, 2023

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Almost a third of female surgeons in the UK have been sexually assaulted by a colleague during the past five years, a recent survey — which is the largest of its kind — has revealed.

Published in the British Journal of Surgery (BJS), the findings have brought to light the extent of this misconduct across the nation and represent what is now being referred to as a ‘#MeToo moment’ for the NHS.

As it discloses, 30 per cent of women who responded said they had been sexually assaulted (with reports detailing women being fondled inside their scrubs, of male surgeons wiping their brow on their breasts, as well as men rubbing erections against female staff), 29 per cent had experienced unwanted physical advances at work, more than 40 per cent had received unsolicited comments about their body, and 38 per cent had been involved in sexual ‘banter.’

In addition, eleven instances of rape have been reported and nearly 90 per cent of participants said they had witnessed sexual misconduct in operating theatres, with 81 per cent of men giving the same answer.

The research also claimed that sexual coercion is a ‘major concern’ within the profession, with 11 per cent of female surgeons alleging they have undergone ‘forced physical contact linked to career opportunities.’

‘Sexual misconduct occurs frequently and appears to go unchecked in the surgical environment owing to a combination of a deeply hierarchical structure and a gender and power imbalance,’ concludes the study.

‘The result is an unsafe working environment and an unsafe space for patients.’

Compiled by the University of Exeter from 1,436 responses to an anonymous online survey, the study was commissioned by the Working Party on Sexual Misconduct in Surgery — a group of NHS surgeons, clinicians, and researchers who say they are ‘working to raise awareness of sexual misconduct in surgery, to bring about cultural and organisational change.’

For staff, workplace harassment could be detrimental to their physical and mental health, the report said, with the worst cases even leading to self-harm and victims contemplating suicide.

On this note, the BJS is demanding action to improve the culture in the surgical workforce and create ‘adequate mechanisms to deal with perpetrators.’

Consultant surgeon Tamzin Cuming, who chairs the Women in Surgery forum at the Royal College of Surgeons of England, said the report presents ‘some of the most appalling facts ever to come out’ about the field.

Writing in The Times, she said: ‘our research reveals an environment where sexual assault, harassment and rape can occur among staff working in surgery but allows it to be ignored because the system protects those carrying it out rather than those affected. We need urgent change in the oversight of how healthcare investigates itself.’

Cuming has called for the creation of a national implementation panel to oversee action on the report’s recommendations and for incidents of sexual misconduct to be independently investigated.

‘No one should need to call for a code of conduct that says, in essence, “please do not molest your work colleagues or students”, and yet this is one of the actions our report recommends,’ she said.

‘The report is measured, its recommendations achievable, but this shouldn’t disguise the anger and frustration felt by many in our profession.’

Originally written by Sofia Phillips for Thred.

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