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BMA apologises for appalling sexism and harassment

‘Old boys’ club’ BMA culture means some women feel undervalued, ignored, and patronised, and some are sexually harassed

Louise Prime

Thursday, 17 October 2019

A lingering “old boys” club’ culture at the British Medical Association (BMA) has led to some women feeling undervalued, ignored and patronised because of their sex, as well as instances of sexual harassment, an independent review revealed this morning. The BMA said it was appalled by the review’s findings, and apologised and offered extensive reform of the organisation – which has already begun.

In April, the BMA commissioned a fully independent review, led by Daphne Romney QC, after reports emerged that two female doctors alleged sexism and sexual harassment by elected members of the BMA. It also asked her to make recommendations to address gender bias and harassment in the BMA, drawing on examples of best practice. She found that:

  • Notable positives in the BMA include a supportive environment in childcare, the development of policies on bullying and harassment, and cultural awareness and assertiveness training for staff to enable them to stand up when bullied. 
  • Most men in the BMA are not sexist or sexual harassers, and every committee is not riddled with discrimination; most of the hundreds of BMA committees carry out their work perfectly properly. Notably the smaller committees tend to work much better, because people know each other and show more respect for each other’s views.
  • A large number of women feel undervalued, ignored, and patronised because they are women – both doctors and staff members. “This is because of an ‘old boys’ club’ culture for some that lingers on without proper challenge, which treats women as of less importance and ability.”
  • Although the original complaints concerned the general practitioners’ committee, these problems are not confined to GPC; they arise across the BMA.
  • Some men continue to address women in demeaning terms, such as “girls”, “silly girls”, “naughty girls”, “little ladies”, “lady members”, and “wee lassies”; they focus on asking them about their children, and how their husbands are coping with their absence, rather than 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.
  • 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, the opportunity to attend certain meetings, or to sit on certain panels, or to have a say in making appointments, or to participate in a particular project. Some said meetings had taken place in their absence, and decisions made at that those meetings, because they were not notified of those meetings taking place.
  • Women are underrepresented at the top of the BMA and on its committees. On GPC England, one of the largest branch of practice committees, men outnumber women by two to one although 54% of GPs are women and both the chair and deputy chair, who are both elected, are male.
  • There are some behaviours that are, and must be obviously understood to be, unacceptable, including shouting, demeaning women, sexual harassment, and bullying.
  • There are consistent (but not widespread) incidents of sexual harassment, particularly at annual and other conferences, after excessive consumption of alcohol, and also outside these social events – such as being touched inappropriately, lewd and inappropriate sexual remarks, invitations or even instructions to accompany a male doctor to his hotel room, staring at a woman’s breasts, and inappropriate comments about a woman’s appearance. Most went unreported by the women themselves or witnesses, because of fear of repercussions or that it would make no difference.

BMA chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul responded: “I am truly appalled to learn that members and staff have been subjected to sexism and sexual harassment and the behaviours described in this report. These behaviours have no place within the BMA. I am deeply sorry to those who have been affected and I thank all those individuals who came forward to contribute to the review – I recognise their strength and courage in speaking out. 

“The report makes for difficult reading. I am determined that we learn from it, and, most importantly that we make the necessary changes to ensure we become a truly inclusive association by implementing the recommendations.”

Dr Helena McKeown, a chief officer at the BMA and representative body chair, said: “I am deeply sorry that doctors and staff have endured this inexcusable behaviour. I am of an age where sexism has pervaded so many parts of my personal and working life for too long… This is a springboard for change and that change has already begun.”

The BMA pointed out that it has so far:

  • In line with Daphne Romney’s recommendations, launched an independent and external 24-hour support line, so that any member or member of staff experiencing sexism or discriminatory behaviour can speak to someone in confidence; and introduced an independent complaints investigation process carried out by an experienced external firm so that members and staff alike can be assured of impartiality.
  • Recently launched Equality Matters – a programme that provides learning for all BMA members and staff on equality, diversity and inclusion.
  • Started to develop bespoke face-to-face training for all members in elected roles and for chairs of committees on inclusive leadership.  
  • Offered an amnesty to all staff and members who have previously made complaints for those complaints to be considered again by the external independent complaints process.

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