The BMA said that the survey, which was completed by 2,458 respondents of whom 82% were women and 16% male, found ‘a concerning level of sexism in the medical profession, stemming from patients, fellow doctors, and other NHS staff’. Almost a quarter of the survey’s respondents (23%) were GPs or GP trainees.
Examples of sexist behaviour experienced by female doctors included being treated less favourably because of their gender, being perceived to be more junior because they were a woman, unwanted verbal and physical conduct and differences in workplace responsibilities.
A BMA report about the findings said a significant theme was the ‘use of sexist language, comments, and jokes’ from other doctors, nurses, non-medical staff and patients. Women said they were subjected to patronising comments and also judged on their appearance.
One female GP responding to the survey said: ‘I was advised I was not pretty enough to cause a distraction in meetings so they could treat me like a bloke.’
A female GP locum said: ‘I have been spoken to in a patronising and disrespectful fashion on a number of occasions, and I would be surprised if male doctors, particularly older male doctors, experience quite the same.’
Almost one-third (31%) of female doctors had experienced unwanted physical conduct at work, while 23% of male doctors had.
The survey found that consultants, GP partners and salaried GPs were more likely than other groups to say that they had not experienced sexism in the past two years. However, only 26% of partners and 18% of salaried GPs said they had not experienced sexism, figures which include all survey respondents.
Female doctors highlighted how sexism had impacted on their career – 67% said their gender had negatively affected their career progression. In comparison, 45% of men said their gender had positively impacted on their career progression.
Seven in ten women said that they felt that their clinical ability had been doubted or undervalued because of their gender, which compared with just 4% of the male respondents.
Meanwhile, 61% of female doctors said they had been discouraged from entering a particular specialty because of their gender, compared with 15% of men. As a result, 39% of women said that they had chosen not to work in that specialty.
The survey responses also found that female respondents believed that they received less support or encouragement to take up senior positions than the male respondents.
A female salaried GP said: ‘I am expected to work without the same chances to follow my own interests. It is a question of not being offered the same opportunities to teach or become involved in management’.
Meanwhile nearly half (44%) of female respondents said that they have or had fewer opportunities during their training because of their gender.
Doctors with caring responsibilities and those who worked part-time were more likely to say that their gender had a significant negative impact on their career progression. The BMA said that a key theme was that there was not enough ‘structural or cultural’ support for doctors who have children, including lack of childcare support and negative attitudes towards women doctors becoming pregnant.
One female GP partner responding to the poll said that she was asked at an interview whether she was planning on having children.
A higher proportion of respondents in general practice across all respondents said that they felt less supported to take as much parental leave as they wanted or were entitled to than in any other group surveyed. Some 37% of GPs said they were not supported, compared with 25% of all respondents.
The survey also found that 69% of female doctors believed that they were given certain tasks because of their gender. In general practice this often translated into the patients female GPs deal with, the BMA report said.
‘Multiple women GPs made the point that the types of patient concerns they were disproportionately asked to see (patients with women’s health and mental health concerns) tended to need longer appointments and this had not been considered in work planning,’ the report said.
One female GP said: ‘As a female GP, working a total triage system, having the time consuming and complicated gynaecology cases allocated to my list, while the male colleagues pick/get allocated by the receptionists the straightforward and quick five-minute consultations. We deal with the same number of patients per session, but mine take rather longer, meaning less time to have a break and mentally prepare for a meeting etc’
Sexism in medicine
The survey was conducted by the BMA in partnership with junior doctor Dr Chelcie Jewitt who started the Sexism in Medicine project after her own experiences of sexism.
Dr Jewitt said: ‘These facts and figures demonstrate that there is a significant issue with gender bias, and the free text responses show the real human cost of these sexist thoughts, behaviours and institutional factors – impacting not only the individuals who were brave enough to contribute to its findings but also on the workforce as a whole.’
Dr Latifa Patel, acting chair of the BMA’s representative body, said: ‘It is appalling that we are seeing these statistics, hearing these stories and talking about these inequalities in 2021. The report makes for shocking reading and there is no place for sexism in society. If we want to eradicate it, we all have a part to play. It’s going to take a concerted effort, and it won’t be quick to fix, but sexism must stop.’
Sexism and the BMA
She acknowledged that the BMA had its own ‘moment of reckoning’ when the Romney report was published in 2019. The report by QC Daphne Romney was commissioned by the BMA after GPonline reported on sexism and harassment experienced by senior GPs within the association.
As a result the BMA ‘put in place a range of measures including an independent complaints procedure, further emphasis of our core values as a daily reminder and we strengthened our training programme for members and staff’, said Dr Patel. ‘Everyone at the BMA is empowered to call out sexism when they see it,
Dr Jewitt said the next stage of the project would be to establish how to tackle sexism and gender discrimination in medicine. The BMA has said that it will develop recommendations that it will share with partners and stakeholders.
They will be based around a number of themes including eliminating sexist language and gender bias, making women doctors more visible to NHS colleagues and wider society to challenge the perception that being a doctor is a male role and transparency around medical training and recruitment.