'Sexism at the BMA has cost general practice a generation of leaders'

Women leaders in general practice are being pushed out by a tide of sexism, bullying and unfair treatment, say senior GPC members Dr Zoe Norris and Dr Katie Bramall-Stainer. Writing for GPonline, they document the experiences of female colleagues and demand an overhaul of BMA culture.

Dr Katie Bramall-Stainer (l) and Dr Zoe Norris (r) (Photos: Peter Williams Photography/BMA)
Dr Katie Bramall-Stainer (l) and Dr Zoe Norris (r) (Photos: Peter Williams Photography/BMA)

The winds of change are coming. It is over a year since the #metoo revelations broke and the world registered what at least half of us were all too plainly aware of on a regular basis. And now, it would at last appear, these changes are reaching the dark dinosaur-infested depths of the world of GP politics.

Both of us have held prominent GPC roles; we won’t in the future, largely because of the experiences we have had at the hands of some colleagues in those roles. Zoe is stepping down. Katie’s role is now representing LMC Conference. Following on from the deeply unfortunate and unprofessional comments made to us and reported in the media at the UK Conference of LMCs in Belfast, we have been lifted by the overwhelming support we have received.

Many colleagues - including male and female GPC members - have welcomed our decision to speak up and call out such misogynistic behaviour on the part of peers and leaders of the profession who, frankly, should know better.

Lost leaders

But greater than that, of more significance than that, is the weight of numbers of similar experiences shared by our peers over the years. Some verbal; many physical. All unwelcome. All damaging. We are not isolated cases.

These too, need and deserve a voice and a chance to be heard. It has made us pause and consider the impact of what has been lost to our profession. The unseen, untapped possibilities of women leaders who have chosen, with regret, to simply walk away rather than continue to subject themselves to ongoing subliminal or conscious belittling, tiresome innuendo or being patronised.

Almost a year ago, LMCs were surveyed about the perceived lack of gender balance. There were eye rolls and uncomfortable grunts in the GPC chamber, but they were wrong: this issue meant a great deal to the constituents of Conference - the 'body politic' of UK general practice. Over 420 replies told us what we already suspected: there is a problem with behaviours based upon gender, and this problem is experienced nowhere more so, than across GPC.

'But there are systems in place! Codes of conduct!' we hear you cry. That is true. But there are many colleagues who have told us these processes – which purport to be the solution and to support those affected - are intimidating, accusatory and unsupportive.

Fear of speaking out

There is a widespread feeling that systems are in place to protect establishment hierarchies and individuals who are an accepted part of the furniture, while rooting out those who challenge the status quo. Many within the layers of ascendancy demur from 'creating a fuss' lest it have a deleterious impact on their political aspirations. 'I saw what happened to her when she reported it – it’s pointless' is repeated to us again and again.

The uncomfortable truth arising from that, is that the behaviour we walk past, is the behaviour we accept. That is as true for the GPC as it is for any organisation. This is a problem that needs to be owned by all of us and seen as 'our' problem, not 'their issue'.

The culture of an organisation is defined by the worst behaviours tolerated by the most senior individuals. Other organisations have worked to tackle this. Now it's the turn of the GPC. This is a call for true and genuine leadership to grasp the nettle and change for good.

Since the UK Conference of LMCs, we have been bombarded with examples of #metoo sent to our personal social media accounts. Conference delegates; trainee representatives; visitors from other branches of practice. LMC secretaries; grassroots GPs; members of GPC - past and present.

Outdated culture

While it is encouraging that the support across social media has been overwhelmingly positive, the very fact that two of the most senior female members of conference were subjected to such behaviours rather suggests we have little to take solace in. Add to that the sheer numbers of poor experiences reported by our peers and colleagues - suggests that Euston, we have a problem.

The time is now to blow open the lid on this outdated culture and give credence and time to those whose voices have been silenced: the lost leaders.

The experienced committee member forced to step down from national politics due to what she described as a 'campaign of sustained, persistent bullying'. The negotiator who dared to be different and immediately lost her seat. The policy lead left to take the blame for her senior’s mistakes.

The experienced delegate who overheard 'two senior people on GPC' braying loudly their guesstimated bra size of a key committee member 'who doesn't really look or sound like GPC'. The LMC chief executive who was sexually explicitly propositioned after presenting a keynote speech. The social media guru who was advised that her expertise was not necessary. The former conference chair whose dinner invite was 'forgotten'. The squeezing of the thighs. The patting of the bottoms. The incessant nudge-nudge, wink-wink more suitably placed within a 1970s Monty Python sketch.

There must be a wholesale culture shift away from drinking and dinners, taps on the shoulder to take on roles, under-the-breath comments, factions and back-stabbing. We have to make sure those who represent the profession, reflect the profession; and embrace diversity by offering all GPs the same opportunities. Most importantly, there must be a genuine objective process for challenging and addressing such behaviours.

You can choose to ignore this, to dismiss it as two over-oestrogenised women who can’t take a joke. Or you can choose to listen, and the BMA can choose to respond. This behaviour belongs in the past. It has no place in our profession. It has no place in our leadership.

Read more
>
Harassment, exclusion and innuendo: women frozen out by 'sexist BMA culture'
>
Top female GPs call out sexism by male GPC colleagues
>
GP gender pay gap is double the average across medicine

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