Two of GPC's longest-serving women speak out over sexism

Two of the longest-serving women on the BMA's GP committee have spoken out about their experiences as the association prepares to launch an investigation into sexism and sexual harassment.

Dr Fay Wilson and Dr Vicky Weeks
Dr Fay Wilson and Dr Vicky Weeks

Birmingham GP Dr Fay Wilson - a GP for more than 30 years and a current GPC member who first served on the committee as a trainee - said sexism, harassment and bullying reported by top GPs were part of a cultural problem that ‘runs through LMCs, the medical profession and the NHS as a whole’.

London GP Dr Vicky Weeks, who served on the GPC for almost two decades from 2000 to 2017, said she had been ‘deeply saddened’ by the experiences of women whose decision to speak out - reported on GPonline - triggered the BMA investigation.

GPonline reported this week that the BMA had set out terms of reference and the scope of an investigation into sexism and sexual harassment within the association - a process expected to begin in May and to last around two months.

Representation

Dr Wilson said the BMA had in the past set up ‘working party after working party’ to look at representation but had failed to tackle the issue effectively, and called the GPC 'one of the least representative committees in BMA House'.

Although 54% of the GP workforce in England is female, just 25 of the GPC's 77 voting members are women. Only one of its nine policy lead roles is held by a woman. ‘If I was an energetic young woman now I would probably go for an RCGP role, not one within the GPC,’ Dr Wilson said.

Dr Weeks said that during her time on the GPC she had faced problems including being heckled at conferences, talked over at committee meetings and had experienced ‘tremendous problems’ with derogatory posts about her on social media from a male colleague.

She spoke of a ‘lack of support and lack of professional respect’ from some male colleagues during her time on the GPC - and said she felt ‘real sadness that all this seems to have come up again’.

Lack of support

Dr Wilson said her own experiences - over decades as a GPC member - included being patted on the head and told to ‘be quiet’ by male colleagues.

About 10 years after she first started working on the GPC, Dr Wilson said a man who had just joined the GPC for the first time told her during a meeting: 'Fay, why don't you keep quiet and listen to people who have more experience than you.'

Dr Wilson said the man who made the comment remains on the GPC. She added that within roughly the past five years another 'progressive chap' on GPC had told her that the reason there were no female policy leads within the committee was because appointments were made 'on merit'.

She said it was difficult to see how the belittling, sexist comments made to senior women on the GPC during the last LMCs conference in Belfast could have been unintentional. 'It looks like someone was trying to take them down a peg just as they were going onto the platform. It is very stressful when you are speaking in front of 300 people.'

Cultural problem

Dr Wilson called for work to understand cultural factors within the BMA that allow, or even encourage, doctors to behave in the ways experienced by her colleagues.

‘I have met very few exceptions to a general belief that people who go into medicine or healthcare start off as good people who want to help others,' the Birmingham GP said. 'So we have to ask what are we doing to these generally well-intentioned people to turn them into nasty people who upset others in this way?

'What is it about the culture? What is it about the BMA that means you may gain from it - if you are competitive and have sharp elbows are you more likely to get to the top…and if you are collaborative are you more likely to get pushed out?’

Dr Weeks - immediate past chair of the GPC sessional GP subcommittee - echoed comments from other doctors who have linked under-representation of sessional GPs to under-representation of women.

Sessional GPs

'From my experience there have been members of the GPC who have been immensely supportive, but one or two who have been quite challenging. I suppose it is men. But there are more men on the GPC than women - from my perspective it is about the sessional GP issue.'

She pointed out that women were more likely to be sessional GPs and that until representation of locum and salaried doctors within the BMA was improved, women would continue to be significantly outnumbered. Dr Weeks also highlighted a concern about the interface between the GPC and LMCs.

She warned: 'If we get the representation of sessionals in LMCs sorted, then it would naturally flow that we would get a better proportion in the GPC. It's a bit chicken and egg. That is what fundamentally needs to be addressed - getting it right at LMC level. There needs to be some serious looking at how these representation issues at grassroots level can be addressed.'

Dr Wilson said it took a 'huge effort' every year to get women to stand and to get women to vote for each other to ensure some were elected to the GPC. She had been 'gently reminded' not to try to influence elections within the BMA, she said. But she added: 'I think women getting together has done more than all the working parties that have been set up.'

Dr Wilson added: 'I love the BMA and think all doctors should join it.' But she said it was 'a shame' there had never been a female chair of either the BMA as a whole, or its GP or consultant committees - particularly given the RCGP's three female chairs within the past decade.

'I haven't given up hope,' the Birmingham GP said. 'But it won't be me now.'

A BMA spokesperson said: 'The BMA has been clear that there is no place for sexism within the association and we are fully committed to promoting equal rights and opportunities, proactively tackling discrimination or disadvantage in all forms, and creating an open and inclusive culture for our members and employees.

'We have now laid out the scope and terms of reference for our independent review into sexism and sexual harassment, and any BMA member will be able to engage with this process if they want to raise any concerns. The recommendations from the review will inform the BMA’s implementation of a culture underpinned by equal opportunity, respect and inclusion.

'GPC earlier this year also agreed to implement a set of recommendations to improve diversity and representation within the committee. We recognise that discrimination and harassment are a wider problem across the health service, and the entire profession and system have a duty to address this. The BMA will continue to play an important role in pushing for positive change.'

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