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Sexual harassment needs to be tackled head-on
Isslia Roberts

HCSA National Officer

Sexual harassment is by no means a new topic. However, it has attracted renewed attention recently with movements such as ‘MeToo’ and a seeming increase in workers across different sectors feeling empowered to speak up.

But at the same time increasingly pressurised work environments, changes to working practices due to Covid-19 and the mass adoption of social media have created additional opportunities for perpetrators and have seen the unwelcome evolution of new forms of harassment.

Remote working creates space for online abuses, results in less supervision and gives more scope for access to colleagues at all times of the day.

Within medicine sexual harassment continues to be a significant issue. Around 150 doctors have been disciplined for sexual misconduct in the past five years.

A 2019 Medscape report found that one in five doctors had been sexually harassed or witnessed it at work, with infringement on body space and unwanted physical contact the most common forms and 71 percent of the perpetrators male. Three percent said the perpetrator had been a colleague.

A separate report by the Royal College of Surgeons in 2021 exposed shocking cases of harassment, assault and rape.

HCSA is regularly called upon to assist doctors reporting and seeking advice on sexual harassment. We are deeply concerned about the long-term impact on those affected.

Having advocated on behalf of some of these members, I have witnessed first-hand its effects in the workplace – the toll on mental health, confidence, work and career prospects, the impact on workplace and personal relationships, even psychological trauma and long-term health implications.

Those who experience sexual harassment also report feelings of mistrust, anger and confusion.

The law is clear. It states that everyone has the right to a safe working environment, without fear of inappropriate or uncomfortable behaviour or harassment of any kind. This is an absolute right enshrined in UK law.

The definition of sexual harassment is very broad, deemed as “unwanted conduct of a sexual nature”. Conduct can include jokes or “banter”, sexual comments, sexually explicit photos or messages, gestures, being propositioned, unwanted touching, hugging and kissing.

At its core, sexual harassment is an abuse of power. It can also impact anyone. Indeed, far from the common or more traditional notion of a senior male manager harassing a female colleague, sexual harassment can overlap with other forms of discrimination such as racial discrimination or sexual orientation discrimination.

HCSA is committed to eliminating sexual harassment in all its forms and supporting the victims. That means maintaining attention on this issue and empowering doctors to challenge misconduct.

At the same time it means making employers understand the negative impact on them of failing to address the issue. These include increased sickness absence, low morale, effects on productivity, loss of talented employees, costly grievances and Tribunal action and damage to reputation, as well as potential scrutiny and unwelcome investigations from external bodies and agencies.

Given employers' duty of care, it is shameful to read University of Cambridge research that shows fewer than one in five NHS trusts provided training for staff to recognise and step in when they witness inappropriate behaviour. 

Sexual harassment is a wholly subjective experience and employer policies and procedures should involve some fluidity to meet individual needs. No two cases are ever the same.

For members themselves, it is not always easy to raise concerns or know what to do in this situation. But the first thing HCSA members should do is seek advice and support if they believe they are experiencing sexual harassment.

Knowing where you stand can mean better protecting yourself and can prevent or minimise any further detriment, for example where an employer may try to implement an action or decision that you do not agree with, such as mediation with the perpetrator, which quite often can be grossly inappropriate.

Whether or not a member wishes to take formal action, getting advice early often puts them in a better position. Simply learning your rights can be a powerful thing.

Share your experiences anonymously in HCSA's survey of hospital doctors on sexual harassment in the workplace.

Tips for members affected

  • Check your employer’s local policy and procedure
  • Keep a diary or record of the harassment.
  • If you need support contact HCSA via or our member portal