‘I was shocked to see sexism when I entered the medical world’

by Emma Parkes

Medicine will change as women continue to take on more roles and patients see the professional instead of the sex of the person

Location: Wales
Last reviewed: 8 March 2022
Emma parkes

I can’t remember the exact moment I decided to become a doctor, it’s always been what I was going to do as a career.

From a young age, I knew that people get ill, and hospitals tried to make them better. We had dealt with my grandparent’s illness as a family, which involved all the grandchildren supporting them through cheery smiles and hugs. Through these memories, I saw hospitals as places where people helped others and I wanted to become one of these people.

The decision to be a doctor was all mine and I was fully supported by my family every step of the way. I was lucky to grow up in a family with a strong female role model. My mum, now retired, was a well-respected pharmacist, who undertook a number of roles at the highest level; some of these were new roles and they were often difficult. This taught me to set goals, work hard and gave me the confidence that I could achieve whatever I set my mind to. I grew up wanting to be well-respected like my mum and I hope to achieve this throughout my career.

I never considered that people would have stereotypical ideals or preconceived ideas about health professions, because that was never part of my upbringing. Sexism was never something I knowingly experienced, so it was a shock to see it when I entered the medical world. It’s still not uncommon for patients to consider males as doctors and females as nurses. ‘Excuse me nurse…’ must be one of my most heard phrases. Patients ask, ‘when will the doctor see me?’ after I’ve already introduced myself as the doctor.

One memorable patient told me he was ‘fed up with seeing women’ and would like to ‘see a proper doctor’. From my experience, I can see patients don’t generally say this to be disrespectful but from a place of pure naivety of their own their sexism. So, I choose to see the humour in these events rather than the negatives, as my passion for medicine has always trumped any frustration. I believe this situation will change as women continue to take on more roles and patients see the professional instead of the sex of the person.

During my career, I’ve had the privilege of working with lots of inspirational women. When I meet them, I try to learn from them and emulate their successes, as everyone has something to offer as a role model. My best friend, a stroke consultant, shows me the importance of resilience and a sense of humour. She offers unwavering friendship and support, and I try to pass this on to my juniors.

My respiratory consultant teaches me the strength of compassion, and that my opinions are valid and should be heard. My mentor, a respiratory consultant from my first medical job, showed me the importance of advocating for patients, and ultimately motivated me to pursue my career in respiratory medicine.

These women have a passion for medicine, and without asking, provided the training and support that helped me grow and start to believe in myself as a doctor. While I also have male mentors, and I don’t agree in treating male and female colleagues differently, I do think women doctors can and should look out for each other and praise each other’s successes. We should help each other if needed and be kind to each other as we grow into all roles that medicine has to offer.

For me, the best career decision I’ve made was to be brave enough to leave a job that made me miserable. Medicine can feel like a small world and stepping off the hamster wheel can be extremely daunting. But the beauty of medicine lies within its variety, and there are so many opportunities available to find the right one for you. I would encourage everyone to be brave and not settle. Medicine should work around the life you choose, and not the other way around.

Medicine, and particularly respiratory medicine, is beyond rewarding. It’s diverse and exciting and I would never consider another specialty. My advice when considering medicine would be to look at your registrars and consultants and the role they undertake, as that is the job you will be doing for the majority of your career. Writing drug charts and discharge summaries are temporary roles and this won’t be the case for your long-term career. Remember to stay focused and keep looking towards your long-term goals.

If I could talk to my younger self, I would tell her that the excitement of medicine comes when we are challenged and learn new things, NOT from knowing everything. Medicine brings the adventure of holistic case management and diagnosis, which at the start of our career can be daunting. Remember, you are always part of a team, and these learning opportunities build your foundations. The thrill that comes from seeing and hearing you have helped a patient is unparalleled and comes frequently within medicine.  

It’s a welcoming career for women, and despite experiencing a few minor hurdles, it has made me a rounded and perceptive clinician. It’s rewarding and challenging, and I won’t settle for anything less.

Emma Parkes is a respiratory registrar at Prince Charles Hospital, Cwm Taf Morgannwg University Health Board