In 1874 Henry Maudsley, of psychiatry renown, wrote an article arguing that the education of women caused ‘nervousness and even mental disorders’.
Thankfully, he had a direct challenger in Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first woman in Britain to achieve a medical degree, the first female dean of a British medical school which she founded, and the first woman admitted to the BMA – eventually becoming a branch president all while having three children, and being an actively involved in the women’s suffrage movement.
I think we can agree Elizabeth Garrett Anderson chose to challenge not only the societal norms of the day but also the discrimination and resistance she no doubt faced in pursuing her chosen professional and personal life.
While we stand on the shoulders of these women today, we face different and sometimes more complex challenges, finding ourselves faced with no less detrimental societal pressures and expectations under the guise of equality.
Let me start by stating the obvious: A medical career in 2021 is a challenge. We are already choosing to challenge ourselves. Hash tag achieved… and yet we frequently challenge ourselves more for a variety of reasons, not only coping but excelling.
Having it all is now the social norm. Social media obviously pervades all of our lives and promotes a ‘normality’ we frequently fail to maintain or achieve: bodies at peak fitness, poreless porcelain skin, magazine immaculate homes, a social calendar to rival a royal duchess and an idyllic peaceful family life, insta-ready at all times.
But is it possible to have it all? Should we be challenging ourselves to have it all, as society dictates?
Some of you will shout ‘yes!’ and I cheer you on in your pursuit of it. But for those of us with more measured expectations, this constant bombardment of our self-worth can be just as detrimental to our progression and success as the male-centric elitism encountered by Dr Anderson in the 1870s.
In truth, women’s roles have not changed dramatically. Women still provide the majority of childcare and facilitate domestic life. Women in medicine often experience subtle and not so subtle sexism from colleagues and patients. Frequently being assumed as any other healthcare worker despite introducing ourselves as the doctor.
If we express disagreement or dissatisfaction in work, we are ‘confrontational’ and ‘hysterical’. Our commitment is questioned because we want to leave on time or choose a less than full time option to facilitate childcare needs. It’s well recognised women still make career choices to facilitate their roles as main home makers despite also negotiating full-time careers.
Today, I think this is our challenge. We need to challenge the systemic failures in realistic rota coordination, childcare facilities – or the lack of them – and flexible working which are becoming increasingly obvious barriers not only to women but the NHS as an organisation.
And most importantly as women, we need to challenge our interactions with toxic societal norms by recognising that we indeed are enough, we are doing enough and that we do not need to prove our worth to anyone but ourselves.
Edwina Hegarty is deputy chair of the BMA Northern Ireland junior doctors committee