Championing and challenging on international women’s day

by Helena McKeown

This year’s International Women’s Day theme is choose to challenge, asking us all to celebrate women’s achievements, raise awareness against bias and take action for equality

Location: UK
Published: Monday 8 March 2021
helena mckeown

At the BMA we’re proud to be able to share a number of successes as we continue to champion women across the medical sphere.

Marian Wright Edelman, an American activist for children’s rights, said: ‘You can’t be what you can’t see,’ which is why our Women in Academic Medicine group has put together an inspirational book of role models. The book – which spotlights nominated women from across the academic medical sphere – celebrates achievements, career highs and great advice received.

It offers readers an insight into the diverse and exciting world of medical academia and aims to encourage women in medicine to consider academia in their career plans and asks you to challenge your own preconceptions of who an academic is.

Marcia Schofield and Sarah Allsop, co-chairs of the BMA’s Women in Academic Medicine Group, are passionate about the need to celebrate role models and to cast aside any stereotyping in this field.

Sarah says, ‘there isn’t one definition of what it means to work in academia. I am an educator and my co-chair Marcia works in research but we’re both academics. For me, working in medical education gives me the opportunity to be part of medical students’ early journey. I still remember role models from when I was at university and their advice and guidance has stayed with me over the years’.

Marcia, whose own route into medical academia didn’t take a traditional trajectory, is clear about what matters: ‘We have to change the viewpoint that academics are a certain way. I played in a rock band and came to medicine late and I work alongside amazing people who have come from the arts, science and industry. Anyone can be an academic in medicine; you just have to be interested in finding answers to tough questions.’

Just as we celebrate the achievements of women in medicine, so we support them in their challenges too. COVID-19 has been so terribly hard on all our healthcare colleagues and we know for female doctors, they felt a duty to step up during the pandemic to potentially save the lives of their colleagues. 

Our research has shown that even though they knew they were at risk, they have been consistently taking on extra, often unpaid, work, to the detriment of their own wellbeing and mental health.

In a diary, written as part of this research, a female doctor from an acute specialty wrote: ‘As the first cases started to be reported in the UK we also heard that men were dying in much higher numbers than women, and the chance of serious illness or death was higher the older they were.

‘All of our team members over the age of 50 were male. I knew that although every extra hour at work created more risk to myself, the risk was less than that being faced by my older, male colleagues. Putting myself forwards to work in the red zones and to take on additional clinical work wasn’t something I debated.’

The association has been regularly surveying doctors across the UK since April last year to better understand their experiences and the issues they face as they work through COVID-19 and last week we launched a survey focused on everyday sexism in medicine to gain a greater understanding of gender issues in the sector. Emergency medicine specialty trainee Chelcie Jewitt, who has campaigned on this vital issue for some years, explains more in this blog.

Throughout the BMA we’re always challenging ourselves to look for ways to improve equality and we are proud to have launched our first network of elected women members who will champion and strengthen female leadership. Membership is open to any elected BMA member and the group aims to support with a range of topics including pensions, working through the menopause and the gender pay gap review. I will be discussing the network and how to build and sustain an inclusive environment for women to develop and thrive at NHS England’s virtual event at 12.20pm today. 

There is so much we still have to do to address systemic gender issues. When the Gender Pay Gap in Medicine review was published by the Department of Health and Social Care late last year, we made immediate recommendations.

We hosted a joint virtual event with the Medical Women’s Federation to review the report calling for more work to be done to support doctors who have caring responsibilities, alongside recommendations such as better pay gap monitoring, shared parental leave and increased flexibility to put an end to the structural inequality of those working less than full-time.

We choose to challenge every day, both professionally and personally, and today, on International Women’s Day, we also choose to celebrate every female who we work with at the BMA and beyond.

Helena McKeown is chair of the BMA representative body