Action must be taken on sexual harassment and assault towards healthcare workers, a panel of female clinicians, including a senior nurse, told parliament this week.
Professor Nicola Ranger, chief nurse for the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), told MPs in the Women and Equalities Committee on Wednesday that protection for staff from sexual harassment was “still not good enough” in many instances.
“Historically, there has been a sense that [sexual harassment] is part of the role, get on with it, but it’s key that we empower people to report”
The committee met this week to discuss sexual assault and harassment in the NHS workforce, in a session held in the Houses of Parliament.
Professor Ranger was joined by Royal College of Surgeons’ women in surgery forum chair Tamzin Cuming, and Dr Chelcie Jewitt, co-founder of Surviving in Scrubs, an organisation set up to campaign against sexual harassment, assault and sexism in healthcare.
The panel was called in following the publication of a British Journal of Surgery article, titled ‘Sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape by colleagues in the surgical workforce, and how women and men are living in different realities’.
The article outlined the huge gaps in experiences in surgery between male and female staff.
Professor Ranger told the panel how things were also concerning for women in the nursing workforce: “Nursing is a 90% female profession.
“Historically, there has been a sense that [sexual harassment] is part of the role, get on with it, but it’s key that we empower people to report. We need to actively make sure that we can be a safe space.”
She acknowledged that, while workplaces had less influence over the actions of patients, they had a role in managing the behaviour of staff.
“What we do have control over is how we look after those staff, how we behave as a team… and in many instances that is still not good enough,” she said.
“If there’s a culture where, because you’re the scrub nurse or because you’re the porter, you can’t raise your concerns, that’s where mistakes happen.
“So, we’ve got to have that respect for chain of command and expertise, but it cannot be at the detriment of anybody raising a concern, and the equality of opinion and the equality of right to be safe at work.”
The issues discussed at the committee hearing have long been on the agenda for nurses.
A Nursing Times poll, conducted in 2021 in collaboration with Unison, found that three in five nurses had been sexually harassed at work, and that many had been made to feel it was “just part of the job”.
Of those those who had experienced sexual harrassment, just 27% said they had reported it to their employer.
Meanwhile, out of the more than 2,000 respondents, 39% had witnessed another colleague being harassed.
The RCN chief nurse said the profession was in a “very difficult place”, with sexual harassment and assault one part of a larger workplace sexism picture.
“[Nursing is] not being valued for the brain and the heart that you need to be a nurse because we are 90% female,” she added.
“Actually, that has affected our pay, our terms and conditions, how we’re treated… and that is absolutely wrong.
“It’s time that nursing staff are respected for both their brains and their heart, and this behaviour has got to stop, from patients as well as colleagues. It’s time that we are respected for the absolutely vital role that we do.”
Professor Ranger further told the hearing that sexual harassment and assault was damaging to nurse recruitment efforts.
She said: “We’ve got to structurally sort out the problems, but also think about our responsibility to recruit people. Sadly, at the moment, everyone in health care needs to feel more valued.
“We can’t have slogans, we’ve got to have action. And I think that’s about supporting and really listening.
“These things are not going to be solved quickly… we’ve got to overtly look and listen for those experiences.”