Women are sexually harassed, bullied, and discriminated against at the British Medical Association (BMA), according to an independent and critical review of the 'toxic' workplace. Stating that sex discrimination and sexual harassment are but two aspects of the "problematic culture" at the BMA, the independent investigation into sexism and sexual harassment at the BMA says that there is also a culture of intolerance of other views.
"This is seen in some committees, and on listservers, and it stems from an inability on the part of some doctors to concede that there is a point of view other than their own. Some doctors continue to bully and to harass other doctors and staff for reasons other than sex – sometimes it is 'otherism,' sometimes it is just bullying and harassment, and sometimes it is a mixture of the two. Whatever it is, it is intolerable, but it has been tolerated, and it is poisonous," says the report.
In April 2019, the BMA commissioned an independent review into concerns raised by BMA members who had been subject to sexist behavior and sexual harassment.
"The BMA commissioned this report after the publication of an article in GP Online on April 1, 2019, written by two members of its General Practitioners Committee (GPC), Dr. Zoe Norris, and Dr. Katie Bramall-Stainer. The article, and subsequent interviews they gave to national newspapers detailed what they described as 'the dark dinosaur-infested depths of the world of GP politics," says the report.
It adds, "Although the original complaints concerned GPC, these problems are not confined to GPC; they arise across the BMA."
A large number of women the investigator spoke to - including those who spoke about other women whose stories they knew - feel they are undervalued, ignored, and patronized because they are women, and this applies to both doctors and members of staff, says the report.
This, says the review, can be attributed to an "old boy's club" culture for some that "lingers on without proper challenge," which treats women as of less importance and ability.
"As a result, some women are frustrated and resentful at their treatment, and the lack of change within the organization, and they walk away. Others stay, but they are unhappy, or they lose their enthusiasm, as a result of which they become disheartened and less effective, or they are simply too intimidated or lacking in confidence to make any proper contribution at all," says the report.
The investigation was led by Daphne Romney QC, who was appointed in June 2019 and was also asked to make recommendations to address gender bias and harassment in the BMA.
"Sexual harassment is not unique to the BMA or to medicine; like sex discrimination, it is a societal problem. The #MeToo movement showed how women across all industries were assaulted and harassed, but they said nothing. Those who did were briefed against, dismissed as 'mad' or 'money-grabbing,' and their careers were damaged," says the reviewer in the report.
The investigator writes that she has heard about incidents of sexual harassment, particularly at conferences, after excessive consumption of alcohol.
"This includes being touched inappropriately, lewd and inappropriate sexual remarks directed to, or made about women, invitations or even instructions to accompany a male doctor to his hotel room, staring at a woman's breasts, inappropriate comments about a woman's appearance, and being kissed or hugged. Most of it is not reported because women, both staff and doctors, are too nervous to report it, and there seem to be incidents every year," says the review.
Such instances are not widespread, although they are consistent, and they seem to happen every year. "The conduct complained of is unacceptable, and in some cases, it exploits the imbalance of power involved between older doctors and younger doctors, or between doctors and the staff who work for them," it says.
In the report, the reviewer writes that she has also heard some complaints of sexual harassment outside these social events – which are by male doctors towards female staff, mostly unwanted touching and remarks about their appearance. "Again, it is rarely called out by other doctors, and the staff themselves are too nervous to report it, either because they fear they may lose their jobs, or because they do not believe that anything would be done about it if they were to report it," says the report.
According to the findings, some men continue to address women in demeaning terms, such as 'girls,' 'silly girls,' 'naughty girls,' 'little ladies,' 'lady members,' 'Madam Chair' and 'wee lassies.' The men, says the report, focus on asking them about their children and how their husbands are coping with their absence, rather than asking them about their achievements, their career aspirations, and their views on policy.
"They demonstrate a lack of respect towards them, and to their contributions, and tend to ignore or belittle their concerns. Some of that may be unconscious. On the other hand, there are some behaviors that are and must be obviously understood to be unacceptable, including shouting, demeaning women, sexual harassment, and bullying. Some of this may be generational, but that does not make it any less offensive," the report says.
Women are consistently made to feel that they are of less importance, and are less capable, than a man; for example, what they say does not carry the same weight, or they are routinely passed over for committee roles. This also applies to staff, says the review. "Female staff with university degrees are told to make the tea or asked whether they want to come and work as a doctor's secretary or P.A. Some have been told, 'you have a lot to prove because you're a woman'," it says.
Some women doctors told the investigator that they are shouted at in a particularly aggressive way, which is uniquely directed toward them, or have witnessed other women treated like this, often with a man's face very close to their own.
"Certain men have been seen only to shout at women, not at men. This experience is both demeaning and frightening for the recipients. Shouting is completely unacceptable in any place of work," it says.
The report further says that the treatment of some BMA staff can be unacceptable, including shouting and rudeness from some members. "Their work, intelligence, and experience are sometimes ignored. The word they most routinely used to describe their workplace to me was 'toxic.' That is a very damning word, and it suggests that there is a problem," says the reviewer.
According to the review, there has been a failure of leadership for too long throughout the BMA in calling out bad behavior, including sex discrimination, sexual harassment, rudeness, and bullying of all kinds.
"The chief officers, committee chairs, members, and senior management, must all take responsibility for not doing more to condemn it, and to intervene to stop it; in the case of the BMA leadership, the buck stops with them," says the report.
It further says, "It may be that discriminatory conduct has not registered with them; on the other hand, some doctors have not wanted to alienate their support base, because there is always an election coming up and they want to win it, some of them intent on progressing up the organizational ladder. However, there is both a statutory and moral duty towards members and a duty towards staff, and that cannot be put second either to personal discomfort or to political expediency."