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Women’s role in medicine is growing

Medicine in the UK has traditionally been dominated by men. In fact it was only in 1876 that women could legally become doctors.

But in September we published our first report on the state of medical education and practice, providing an insight into the changing nature of the medical workforce in the UK. We found that the most important demographic change across the past ten years has been the growing number of female doctors. Although men still outnumber women, current trends indicate that female doctors will become the majority in the NHS in England at some point between 2017 and 2022.

We also saw distinct differences in specialty training choices between men and women. Women tend to cluster in the smaller specialties and are under-represented in the larger specialties – notably, Anaesthetics, Opthalmology, Gastroenterology, and surgical specialties. Mehtab Ahmad, a third year registrar in General Surgery in the West Midlands Deanery, tells us what it’s like to be a women working in a surgical specialty.

Mehtab was inspired to choose General Surgery by a consultant during her third year at medical school.

‘He made surgery not only interesting, but fun,’ she says. ‘And made it something I wanted to be a part of.’

Being a woman can be an advantage

Mehtab is now working towards an MD in vascular surgery – this field is not only technically challenging, but the patients often have very serious comorbidities, meaning that vascular surgeons need to be skilled in both operative techniques and physiological management of patients.

Mehtab does not feel that choosing a specialty in which women are under-represented has affected her training.

‘Traditionally it was perceived that women had to outdo the men to be taken seriously in medicine…I don’t think this necessarily holds true as much as it used to.’

Instead, she feels that being a woman is an advantage.

‘Medicine is by definition a caring profession. Some of the male-female sex stereotypes render women to be better-rounded practitioners as a result,’ Mehtab explains. ‘We’re better listeners, pay more attention to the psychosocial aspects of health and patients are often more comfortable disclosing personal information to a female than male counterpart.’

Follow the career path you want

Pursuing a medical career in any specialty is fraught with challenges – Mehtab describes medicine as a fairly all-encompassing career.

‘The hours that doctors work are long and labour-intensive. Postgraduate exams and evidence-based practice mean that academically you have to keep on pushing yourself,’ she says.

These demands might make specialties that seem to have greater flexibility more appealing to women who have commitments outside the workplace. However, Mehtab warns that perceptions of family-friendly specialties should not dissuade women from following the career path that they want.

‘If you want to pursue a specialty then you should simply go for it…We fall into this blinkered view that there’s no other career out there than medicine. If we look outside, there are many successful women in equally challenging and demanding careers who manage not only their work, but also have families and lives beyond their office.’

She believes that this is a fortuitous time for women in medicine – getting into medical school is no longer the challenge that it used to be for women and the steady increase in the proportion of women joining medicine is likely to accelerate some of the already evolving working practices.

‘The hospital workplace is now compatible with women,’ she says, ‘and with flexible training and opportunities for career breaks in place as well as a maternity leave policy that is second-to-none, we need to stop using the adage that certain careers are not compatible with wanting a family.’

Improved support could increase access to some specialties

Although much progress has already been made, our report on the state of medicine showed that some specialties may need to adapt to allow more flexible working patterns, benefiting both men and women.

What could help to increase women’s access to specialties in which they are under-represented? Together with encouragement and support, Mehtab suggests that women need good career advice, mentoring schemes, and teaching at medical school about systems to help them juggle their personal and professional lives, such as flexible training, maternity leave, and job sharing.

‘I have never felt being female has been either directly advantageous or disadvantageous,’ she concludes. ‘The new system of training means that we are judged on merit. Our sex has very little to do with that.’