“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Woman are afraid men will kill them,” Margaret Atwood
In the past week many of us will have been following developments in the case of Sarah Everard closely. Sarah, a 33 year old woman, went missing on 3 March 2021 after walking home in a well lit busy area of South West London, presumed abducted and murdered. Many women have been particularly shaken by the case because they identify with Sarah. For myself this is in part due to our age, appearance, and attending the same university. But on a deeper level I, like many women, am unnerved by this because it is what we have always been taught to fear. It is the actualisation of what we women always pray will never happen when we walk home after dark, when we quicken our steps to return to a car in an empty multi-story car park after finishing a late shift. This fear is a product of systemic misogyny and is everywhere. While thankfully rarely culminating in murder, it shapes our professional and personal identity as women.
While misogyny historically is defined as “the hatred of woman,” it is now more widely recognised to be synonymous with sexism.  It is a spectrum of behaviour that ranges from the casual sexualisation of woman resulting in their disempowerment to the violent crimes of rape or murder. On International Woman’s Day this year, Jess Phillips, British MP, read out 118 names of woman and girls killed over the last 12 months. She said “Killed women are not vanishingly rare, killed woman are common.”  The persistence of misogyny depends on the complicity of the majority and enabling woman to feel safe depends on the dismantling of it. Sarah’s case has led to an increase in public discourse on woman’s safety that has also led to men asking woman—what can I do to make you feel safer? What these men are really asking is: “how can I help dismantle systemic misogyny?”
While there are many good places to start, one such place would be at work. There is already a recordable gender pay gap in the NHS of between 12-19%, but we cultivate this further through unconscious bias that requires woman to work twice as hard to be taken as seriously as their male counterparts.  We apply unconscious bias to woman in the workplace far more than we do to men. We don’t assume that male doctors who wear tight shirts will be attempting to use their sexuality to advance their career in the same way as a woman wearing a tight shirt. We definitely do not assume that a man of a certain age will be less worth training because they are likely to “go off and have children,” while this is sadly a jibe all too often levelled at women.
The times I have feared being murdered on my way home in the dark are thankfully a rarity compared to the times I have felt deeply uncomfortable at the hands of misogyny in my professional life. All woman have examples—inappropriate comments made about their own or another female doctor’s appearance, the drink a married male colleague in a position of power asks you to meet him for that feels like its blurs the professional boundary, being asked if you want to be a “functional or decorative” doctor. Yes, these are anecdotal experiences, but no they are not fictionalised.
Being an ally is not comfortable, but it is not enough to say that because something doesn’t affect you directly it is not worth calling out. Every time a male (or female) colleague listens to the reiterated rhetoric defining woman who make an effort with their appearance, or who have children as taking their job less seriously, without calling out the fallacious assumptions on which that is based, they as culpable of misogyny as the people making the remarks.
The victim blaming that has shaped the narrative of so many past murders have led to women continually moderating: wearing sensible shoes when we walk home, taking well lit paths, letting a friend know where we are. Despite doing all this and more, it did not keep Sarah safe because she was not the problem. Similarly, we moderate our behaviour at work to keep safe—keeping our heads down, carefully assembling outfits to avoid accusations of dressing provocatively, laughing along with the “boys club” jokes so we don’t rock the boat. These measures, in either context, deflect the source of culpability, merely papering over the cracks of a larger systemic problem. While #notallmen are perpetrators of violent crime against woman, can #allmen say that have not stood by while an inappropriate comment is made about a female colleague?
If there is one thing we can learn from the tragic murder of Sarah Everard, it is that even in 2021 women do not feel safe. If a man wishes to make a woman feel safe, they can start by making her feel safe where she works. Complicity with misogyny, whether carried out by men or women, is doing a disservice to our profession because ultimately what we walk past is what we accept.
Clara Munro, editorial registrar and clinical fellow, The BMJ, and general surgical trainee, North East England.
Competing interests: None declared.
- MISOGYNY | meaning in the Cambridge English Dictionary [Internet]. [cited 2021 Mar 14]. Available from: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/misogyny
- Jess Phillips – 2021 Speech on International Women’s Day – UKPOL.CO.UK [Internet]. [cited 2021 Mar 14]. Available from: http://www.ukpol.co.uk/jess-phillips-2021-speech-on-international-womens-day/
- Rimmer A, O’Dowd A. Women doctors paid less than men even after part time working is accounted for. BMJ (Clinical research ed) [Internet]. 2020 Dec 17 [cited 2021 Mar 14];371:m4904. Available from: https://www.bmj.com/content/371/bmj.m4904