Surviving in Scrubs: a campaign against sexism in healthcare

Two doctors are leading a project that is gathering female healthcare workers’ testimonies and calling for change.

Chelcie Jewitt

 

The Surviving in Scrubs website has a “Testimonies” section that makes for sobering reading. Here, over 150 medics have shared their experiences of the sexism and sexual harassment that they have endured from colleagues. 

The stories range from being expected to make the tea and being called “sweetheart”, to explicitly sexual comments, unwanted touching, and assault. Some women add that, when they told senior staff about any issues, they were not taken seriously. 

“Every single female that I work with has…had [these kinds of] experiences,” says Chelcie Jewitt (pictured above), a junior doctor in emergency medicine, who co-founded Surviving in Scrubs last year. “It is so normalised that people don’t realise that it’s wrong…[but] just because it’s common, just because it’s ‘normal’, it doesn’t mean that it’s right.”

Surviving in Scrubs is a campaign against sexism and sexual misconduct in healthcare professions. It was set up by Jewitt and Becky Cox, a GP, to allow women to share their experiences and to call for the changes that they need.

Every single female that I work with has…had [these kinds of] experiences.

The treatment of female doctors in particular has come under the spotlight in recent months, as more women speak up. In April, several female surgeons spoke to the Times newspaper about the male-dominated world of surgery and the harassment they faced from colleagues. 

There has also been an effort to gather better data. A 2021 survey by the British Medical Association (BMA), the doctors’ union, found that 91% of women doctors had experienced sexism at work over the past two years. Over half (56%) said they had received unwanted verbal comments and almost a third (31%) said they had experienced unwanted physical conduct.

“There’s a bit of a snowball effect going on,” says Jewitt, who helped to develop the BMA survey prior to setting up Surviving in Scrubs. “There have been a few pieces of work, a few people speaking up, and [so now] people are realising that it’s okay to speak up.”

The hierarchy of healthcare

Surviving in Scrubs logo

The NHS overall is a predominantly female arena, with women making up 77% of its staff. But while women accounted for half of the new doctors joining the workforce in 2021, they are still under-represented in prestigious specialisms such as surgery, according to a report last year by the General Medical Council (GMC), which regulates doctors. 

Women are also under-represented in many specialisms at the level of consultants, senior doctors who have completed their training, the latest NHS data from 2018 show.

Medicine is far from alone in having issues with workplace sexism and sexual misconduct, but Jewitt thinks there are specific factors that exacerbate the situation. Hospitals have fixed pecking orders and consultants are often powerful figures.

“I think the hierarchy of healthcare definitely plays a part – [many of] the structures in the NHS are really old,” she says. Also, in these fast-moving and over-stretched workplaces, harassment issues can get lost in the noise.

Another form of sexism is that female trainees are often pointedly told which areas of medicine are “family-friendly”, with non-hospital roles as GPs or public health medics being common suggestions. While surgery has received much attention recently, Jewitt says their testimonies show serious sexual misconduct issues in many areas of medicine – including general practice.

Campaigning for change

Surviving in Scrubs is now campaigning for workplace policies that will help to change this. They have recently had meetings with the BMA, the GMC, and NHS leaders to look at what policies currently exist and what needs to change. 

Jewitt and Cox are calling for reforms that include the NHS having a single standardised reporting system for sexual misconduct, as opposed to the current system where different settings handle this differently. They also want the GMC to explicitly bar these types of behaviour in its code of conduct, which is used to help assess if a doctor is fit to practise.

“[There are] a lot of meetings going on. This now needs to get pushed forward into action – that’s the next hurdle that we need to get across,” Jewitt says.

“But I do feel as though healthcare and the NHS are waking up to these issues. And I do think that things are going to change.”



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