Diane O’Carroll: Many women working in the NHS have #metoo stories to share

My hope is for a culture change where sexism is no longer dismissed as “having a laugh”

Since the story broke, headlines and dinner conversations have been dominated by the repellent conduct of Harvey Weinstein and other men. This most public scandal has triggered a global wildfire of anger and condemnation, and also led to the #metoo movement, where women and men share their experiences of sexual harassment and abuse publicly on social media, highlighting how this behaviour pervades every walk of life. The movement was recently named Time magazine’s Person of the Year.

The widespread degrading behaviour towards women has been reported as “shocking” across several media outlets. While the specifics of certain reports have indeed been deplorable, the number of women highlighting their experiences via #metoo comes as no surprise. Sadly, in several discussions I have had with female peers, the consensus has been that as women working in the NHS, many of us have stories of this nature to share.

This has caused me to reflect upon the  examples of problematic and unacceptable behaviour I have encountered working within NHS hospitals.

For example, the time I was invited into a consultant’s office for a coffee, where he reclined his chair, put his feet up on his desk, and told me I would do well in medicine because I was “pretty.”

Or the time I was told a “funny” story by a consultant which involved a female applicant for a consultant position being asked if she wanted the job badly enough to “bend over that table.” This was communicated to me as a hilarious anecdote, where no criticism was made of the male consultant making the comments.

On another occasion, I was asked by a consultant at a social occasion if I thought highly of a particular school because someone who had gone there “fucked” me, “probably up the arse”. This was in the company of a male junior doctor, who later commented that this consultant was “a legend” in reference to this kind of interaction. This reaction was particularly saddening as it suggests that some of the new generation of male doctors will continue to witness comments such as this, and view it to be aspirational behaviour.  

My aim in sharing these examples is to continue the conversation, raising awareness of what women regularly endure. My hope is for a culture change where sexism is no longer dismissed as “having a laugh,” and that we all feel better equipped to call someone out when their comments offend.  

Each of these interactions left me feeling furious about the blatant disrespect being shown to myself and women in general. The strongest emotion I felt, however, was guilt at being unable to speak up and tell the aggressor how I really felt. I am ashamed to admit I laughed along.  

And this is where I feel a real opportunity for change lies. Not merely #metoo in relation to having experienced sexual harassment first hand, but #metoo, I’ve witnessed it and done nothing, and I’m not prepared to do nothing anymore.

It would be easy to vilify the men at fault in the above examples, but I believe this would be overly simplistic. I believe that these are not “bad” men, and I am certain that if any of them were to identify themselves in reading this, they would be saddened to hear of the effect of their words. This wilful ignorance has to stop. A culture change is required, comments which degrade and intimidate women are not “banter,” they are unacceptable. I hope the ongoing media coverage will drive this message home, and where this fails, I hope the solidarity of the #metoo movement will empower those witnessing offensive behaviour to inform the perpetrator that this will no longer be tolerated.

Diane O’Carroll is an ST3 in Emergency Medicine, graduating from the University of Glasgow in  2013. She previously studied Law at the University of Aberdeen, graduating in 2007.