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Breaking the silence – sexual misconduct in surgery

RCS England is committed to a zero-tolerance approach to sexual misconduct, and we will actively work to eradicate this behaviour in surgery and healthcare.

Definition of sexual misconduct

We defer to The Working Party on Sexual Misconduct in Surgery’s definitions of sexual misconduct, sexual harassment and sexual assault.

Sexual assault: A painful truth

Keen to shed light on this sinister undercurrent in the surgical profession, we featured an article in our September 2021 Bulletin by members Simon Fleming and Becky Fisher, Sexual assault in surgery: a painful truth. The subsequent letter to the authors from Philippa Jackson, sharing their personal experience of sexual assault in the workplace, sparked a surgical #MeToo movement on Twitter, illuminating the shocking prevalence of sexual harassment in surgery.

We committed in January 2022 to zero tolerance of workplace sexual harassment and assault of any kind, and to work with groups such as the Working Party for Sexual Misconduct in Surgery (WPSMS) to take action. Since then, we have worked with the WPSMS, Surviving in Scrubs and other organisations to support much-needed research, conversations and next steps. We were signatories to NHS England’s Sexual safety in healthcare charter, published on 4 September 2023.

New research

For the first time, new research from the University of Exeter and University of Surrey as part of their involvement with the Working Party on Sexual Misconduct in Surgery has revealed the extent of sexual misconduct by colleagues - including sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape - within the UK surgical workforce in the last five years. The in-depth study, which has been published in the British Journal of Surgery, analysed anonymous online survey responses from 1,434 participants (51.5% women) from the surgical workforce.

The research found that:

  • two-thirds of women (63.3%) had been the target of sexual harassment from colleagues, along with almost a quarter of men (23.7%).
  • the majority of participants (89.5% of women, 81% of men) said they have witnessed some form of sexual misconduct by colleagues.
  • only 16% of those impacted by sexual misconduct made a formal report.

witness graph

target graph

Figures from Breaking the Silence, the Working Party on Sexual Misconduct in Surgery report, September 2023

The study also found there is a widespread lack of faith in accountable organisations’ ability to deal with sexual misconduct. These included NHS trusts that have a duty to protect the workforce, the General Medical Council (GMC), the British Medical Association (BMA), Health Education England, and the Royal Colleges.

Read the research
Please note that this research contains information and experiences that are distressing and may be triggering to some. Please contact the RCS England Confidential Support and Advice Line on 0800 028 0199 if you want to talk to a trained counsellor.

The action we will take

We have zero tolerance for sexual misconduct and are committed to play our part in eradicating this behaviour in surgery and healthcare. We have been wholly supportive of the research and welcome the WPSMS report, Breaking the Silence: Addressing Sexual Misconduct in Healthcare, and its recommendations. It is imperative that NHS trusts along with other healthcare providers and bodies review their policies and procedures and that we work together to ensure that those experiencing or witnessing behaviour feel comfortable calling it out and reporting it.

In addition to working closely with WPSMS, the other bodies within healthcare and our members on the report recommendations, we have outlined some of the initial steps we are committed to taking below.

We have identified a senior leader, Lucy Davies, Executive Director of Membership, Marketing and Communications, from within the College to take this work forward. You can contact Lucy directly at


Our role as a Royal College is rooted in education, awareness and standard setting.

We have unconscious bias e-learning and guidance, available free of charge to all on our online learning platform. We are also committed to developing and signposting impactful, targeted resources and training on being an active bystander, with specific reference to incidents of sexual misconduct.

We have started to review our own core standards document, Good Surgical Practice to make sure it reflects the GMC’s guidelines on sexual misconduct.

Policies and Codes of Conduct

RCS England has a Code of Conduct which we will be reviewing to ensure that it includes unwanted, inappropriate and harmful sexual behaviours and timely action against alleged perpetrators.

We are putting processes and policies in place for everyone who attends or is involved with College activity. They will be clearly communicated and with appropriate support in place.

All staff and Council members currently have to undertake regular Equality and Diversity training. We will be reviewing this to ensure it is appropriate, clear and specific and ensure it is rolled out to all College representatives

We are signatories to the BMA Sexism Pledge and the NHS England Sexual Safety Charter.

Culture and performance

We have diversity, equity and inclusion firmly rooted in our strategy, values and operational delivery. We have recently:

  • Refreshed our emerging leaders programme for women and non-binary people.
  • Brought the Pride in Surgery forum, supporting our LGBTQ+ colleagues, formally into the College.
  • Launched our SAS strategy and activities to support SAS surgeons.
  • Set out how we are going to close the MRCS differential attainment gap.
  • Developed our plans to support parents in surgery.

Read more about our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion work and our plans for the future.

Read the WPSMS report
Please note that this report contains information and experiences that are distressing and may be triggering to some. Please contact the RCS England Confidential Support and Advice Line on 0800 028 0199 if you want to talk to a trained counsellor.

Support and signposting

If you experience or witness sexual harassment or assault in the workplace, if you feel able, please report it through your hospital procedures and, if appropriate, to the police. There is third-party help and support available via the links below. 

If you need advice on the legal process or need emotional support from a trained counsellor, RCS England provides a 24/7 Confidential Support and Advice Service – the helpline can be reached on 0800 028 0199.

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