The ‘isms’ of women in medicine


Prof Saffron Whitehead, distinguished Emeritus Professor at  St George’s University of London and author of the highly successful ‘Clinical Endocrinology’ textbook shares some of her personal thoughts on feminism and ageism in medicine. 



In 1974 I returned from Canada to England, armed with a PhD. I decided to go into medicine and two of my applications resulted in invitations for interview. One of the interviews was at the Royal Free Hospital which was then renowned for favouring female applicants to counteract the bias toward the male dominated profession (feminism?). I thought there would be every chance I would be accepted. There was an interview panel of nine (mostly women) and toward the end of the interview the lady chair said “You do realise you will be 32 by the time you qualify”. Angrily I retorted “Do you realise that would give me thirty three years of practising medicine?” Needless to say I was instantly dismissed (ageism?).

OK, if I couldn’t become a student then I will defy the medical profession and find employment in a medical school. After writing to every medical school in London I got a lead and to cut a long story short was offered a lectureship at St George’s University of London with a two year secondment to the Chelsea College of Science and Technology. I moved to Tooting for the opening of the new medical school in 1978. I was green behind the ears, never having had any post-doctoral experience or any experience in lecturing, writing grant applications and all the rest that goes with an academic position.

At that time I was one of a handful of female academics and was constantly asked to join committees because it would help to satisfy Equal Opportunities. I remember a dear consultant colleague of mine who once said it was a pity I was not only a female but black and disabled as well. That would fulfil all the criteria of Equal Opportunities!

So what has happened to women in medicine these days – feminism, ageism, equalism?

Until the sixties there were less than 10% female doctors but it is predicted that by 2017 there will be more female than male doctors in the United Kingdom. This can be reflected by the fact that today over 55% of medial students are female. Arguably because women achieve slightly better A level results and perform better in the selection process because they tend to mature earlier than males and thus present themselves more impressively.

In 2012 the GMC reported that the number of registered doctors was 57% male to 43% female but this ratio will certainly reverse. The problem with this is that most women would like a family (as I did) and they have to juggle between career and profession. Many chose the GP route where work-life balance is better (particularly if they go part-time) rather than go into the demands of hospital medicine, often with antisocial hours. This is exemplified by GMC statistics which showed the difference in male:female doctors in different specialities in 2012. As examples – general practice 31,711:29,272, general surgery 3,779:467 and trauma and orthopaedics 3,629:191. It has been argued that is it worth training more women doctors than men (the cost is about £500,000) when many will go part-time in general practice – a two to one outcome in terms of training the work force. Today 40% of our doctors are imported from the EU because there aren’t enough medical school places to train our doctors we need. So is the dilemma in feminism, equalism or just training more doctors? What we can’t change is that only the female sex can procreate.

Few women reach the top and, in my experience, those who did, chose not to have a family. As an anecdote, my first promotion was refused because I was on my first maternity leave! Fortunately this excuse is not allowed these days but as mother of three I couldn’t attend important meetings at 8.30 am or those at 5.30 pm, nor could I hob nob in the bar after work making connections and networking with the ‘right’ people.

However the pay gap between men and women in medicine (18%), even for controlling for maternity leave, part-time work and fewer years of experience, showed there is still a ‘true’ gender gap. Women tend not to push themselves forward, going to committee meetings, international conferences and net working. In other words ‘being a good chap”. Instead women tend to focus on their profession and care of patients and motherhood even though they are as competent and committed to doing the same job as men.

I guess I am a feminist and whilst being subjected to ageism this, to a large extent, has now been overruled by post-graduate programmes for prospective medical students. As for equalism there is clearly a gender gap. Even as an academic I watched my male colleagues rise faster in their careers, but in the end I made it though that was after my three children had fled the roost.




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