The kidnapping and murdering of 33-year-old Sarah Everard this month, and the ensuing renewed focus on the treatment of women, made me think how often women in pharmacy are subjected to sexual harassment.
I’ve been sexually harassed countless times verbally, physically, at work, after work, on my phone – where I’ve been sent unsolicited pictures – and on social media. I can't think of a single job I've had where I've not been accosted, mainly by male colleagues. I foolishly brushed it off at first as "workplace banter", before speaking to female friends who said it was, in fact, inappropriate.
I reported one man for inappropriate behaviour to the police. The offender expressed sexual feelings towards me verbally and via messages. He made inappropriate or insulting comments about my appearance and the way I carry myself. He said my demeanour and dress sense invited harassment.
He was a stranger claiming to be a pharmacy professional. He started by sending me sexual messages, which evolved into death threats. He also threatened he would have me struck off the register.
The first time I reported this, the police did nothing. They brushed off my claims, making the excuses of “extreme workloads” and resource issues.
After I reported this man a second time to the police and shared my willingness to approach the police and crime commissioner – who handle complaints about the police – the police finally accepted I was in imminent danger and put out a warrant for his arrest.
Other reports I made to my seniors about colleagues were never followed up. I ensured I followed the correct escalation pathway, but most recently I was told: “We are busy dealing with the pandemic. If they do it again, keep a log, then send it to us, meanwhile exercise caution.”
The police also told me this advice:
- Keep your phone charged
- Try not to go out too late or alone
- Walk fast and be prepared to run
- Keep your headphones off
- Stay alert
- Look at people so they know you’ve seen their face
- Always stay away from anyone walking near you by crossing the road if necessary
- Keep checking behind you
- Lock your windows and doors
- Get a rape alarm.
The impact of this advice hit me harder when I heard shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds tell the House of Commons this month: “It is not women who should change their behaviour, it is men and wider society that need to change.”
During the pandemic, inappropriate comments happened on an almost daily basis from patients, hospital visitors and colleagues. I became so used to them. They became normalised in my work life. Only when looking back on things have I realised that these interactions were definitely not okay, in an ideal world.
I used to display my NHS badge with honour, but during the pandemic I was told to hide it as some healthcare professionals had been violently attacked for the benefits the badge gave. I was also told by hospital security that as I am a small female, wearing my identity badge would put me at a higher risk of premeditated attacks and sexual assault. Once again, the advice I was given was to alter my identity by avoiding dressing and acting as I normally would.
I was terrified. I blamed myself and worked towards the advice I was given. This reinforced the mindset that this was my fault, that I needed to change. But I've come to realise that I am not helping anyone by not sharing my experiences and that talking more openly about this could be the gateway to change.
It's not your fault, share your stories. Let’s make this a matter of public concern in pharmacy.
The author is a hospital pharmacist based in south England
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