Female surgeon wearing surgical mask in operating room of hospital
New statistics around sexual harassment are horrifying, but entirely unsurprising (Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

While on a late shift as a surgeon at the Royal Stoke University Hospital, I was led into a room by a senior colleague under the guise of discussing work.

Once there, he sexually assaulted me and prevented me from leaving. He massaged my back, kissed my face and neck, hugged me and pushed me against a desk.

It was 11 June 2020 and I felt so violated and appalled at his behaviour. My story is unfortunately far from rare.

A recent survey shows that, appallingly, almost a third (29%) of female surgeons working in the NHS have been sexually assaulted by a colleague in the last five years.

It also found that 40% of women surveyed reported receiving uninvited comments about their body and 38% experienced sexual banter at work.

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

These statistics are horrifying, but entirely unsurprising.

I have experienced so much sexual harassment in my time as a surgeon – from consultants openly discussing junior doctors’ breasts, who they’d most like to sleep with, to 3am WhatsApp messages from amorous bosses.

I’d worked hard to gain a place in surgery, and I knew the risk that came with complaining about sexism. For me and my female colleagues, a career in this field involved walking a tightrope of brushing off such behaviour while not being labelled as ‘frigid’ or a ‘troublemaker’.

Harassment, disguised as ‘banter’ was the norm, with a permissive attitude towards misogyny in general, and constant overt and subtle sexism. I often thought to myself: Perhaps if I was a good enough surgeon, I could overcome being a woman in their eyes.

What happened to me in June 2020 felt so stark and predatory though, I knew I had to say something.

Reporting my assault was nearly as traumatising as the incident itself.

When I initially spoke to my supervisor, he wasn’t sure how to proceed so I sought advice from the British Medical Association (BMA), who told me to find the relevant policy. When I did – a generic Dignity At Work Policy – the link on the intranet didn’t work for me.

I contacted HR and made a complaint. I subsequently discovered that they made no note what had happened, and did nothing to progress the case. After a week, I chased again. 

Little did I know that my perpetrator had been arrested days after my assault, this time for sexually assaulting a girl under 16. Despite this, and my report, the Trust initially provided him with a conditional offer of a further 12 months fixed term contract, failing to fully suspend him at the time.

A case investigator was appointed and almost five weeks after I reported my assault, I finally attended an interview, which was recorded. 

In that interview, I requested that she not make contact with my consultant colleagues as I was scared of the stigma reporting such an assault might bring. This was not respected and she telephoned my bosses to engage in informal conversations about me, to discuss whether I was known to have ‘inappropriate relationships’ in the department.

One of my friends told me about this, and I asked to have the investigator removed from my case. My request was rejected. 

I was then contacted by HR, who told me that the recording of my interview had been inadvertently attached to an email and shared with third parties unrelated to the case.

Meanwhile, my perpetrator requested that his colleagues weren’t contacted about him, and of course this request was honoured. While my name was dragged through the mud, bosses were asked about rumours about me, and my clinical ability dissected, he seemingly remained unscathed from probing into his behaviour.

Eventually, the investigator completed her report and initially found that he had no case to answer. In the meantime – after I heard about her questions and the Trust’s refusal to remove her from the investigation or to investigate my concerns – I raised an employment tribunal claim.

Remarkably, the case complaint manager – against Trust policy – amended the investigator’s report and changed the outcome to state that there was indeed a case for misconduct to be answered.

More from Platform

Platform is the home of Metro.co.uk's first-person and opinion pieces, devoted to giving a platform to underheard and underrepresented voices in the media.

Find some of our best reads of the week below:

Linda Aitchison was terrified when her doctor suspected cancer following some worrying symptoms. The writer was filled with relief when it transpired to be her long-forgotten 15-year-old coil.

Metro.co.uk's Alicia Adejobi slammed Kanye West and shared how she felt humiliation and sadness for his 'wife' Bianca Censori after seeing her outfits in Italy.

An anonymous writer explains how, after never having the best relationship with his father, he gave his dad a second chance by allowing him to be an active grandparent. Something his father has taken for granted.

And Shane Harding retells the story of how she met her soulmate Mert on holiday in Turkey. Mert travelled 300 miles and spent £400 on a taxi just to make their first date.

It is rare to report sexual harassment in the NHS, and my story is a perfect illustration of why this is the case. Some of what I went through can be put down to ineptitude, but there was a sinister undertone of misogyny present throughout. 

Failing to take reports of sexual assault seriously, investigating the victim rather than the event, victim blaming and slut shaming – my experience was like something out of 1970, not 2020.

My win at tribunal has come too late for my medical career. After my experiences, I left surgery. I now have a non-medical job as an administrator, which means years of training wasted.

I hope my story can make a difference to someone else though. It is clear to me that in isolation, trusts will not improve their handling of sexual harassment and assault, and I suspect only with sustained public scrutiny will the situation improve.

NHS trusts that perpetuate toxic cultures need to be named and shamed.

Campaigning groups such as Surviving in Scrubs – who help share survivor stories of sexism, harassment, and sexual assault in the healthcare workforce – are so important. It is essential to raise awareness of the plague of sexual harassment in medicine so more people feel capable of speaking out, but more critically – to put pressure on organisations such as the General Medical Council (GMC) and NHS trusts to investigate and deal with sexual harassment appropriately.

It is not sufficient to put the onus on the individual to report harassment, when the entire culture feels stacked against them. And when, in my case, they will be punished for doing so.

There is an epidemic of sexual assault in medicine that badly needs addressing.

As for my attacker, he has never faced justice. The last I heard, he had left the country.

Following my employment tribunal win, the next step for me is a follow-up hearing to determine compensation, which is known as a remedy hearing.

But no remedy could ever make up for my experiences, for not being believed or listened to, for being victim blamed and for losing my career because of sexual harassment.

Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing James.Besanvalle@metro.co.uk

Share your views in the comments below.

MORE : Half of women ‘have woken up to find their partner sexually assaulting them’

MORE : What exactly constitutes sexual harassment in the work place?

MORE : Sexual assault is endemic among gay men – it took years to realise it happened to me