What is it like to be a female medical student?

by Imogen Arden-Jones

For the next generation of doctors, a workplace free from sexism and harassment must be more than a theoretical prospect

Location: UK
Published: Thursday 8 February 2024

Day one of medical school: fresher’s week. The medical students are sat in a hall, other freshers are not invited. We are told that we are not like the other students – we are future doctors.

We must be professional, at all times. Especially on social media.

But what does professionalism really mean?

The authors of ‘Prevalence of unprofessional social media content among young vascular surgeons’ considered pictures of female surgeons wearing bikinis to be unprofessional. They were not alone, given that their study was published in a peer-reviewed journal.

The resulting #MedBikini trend, with doctors and medical students sharing such ‘unprofessional’ pictures of themselves online in solidarity, successfully challenged this narrative. It started an international conversation about the biases of ‘professionalism’.

The paper was retracted and an apology issued, and the journal vowed to include more women on their editorial board. That’s a start. But if such a paper can make it to publication, what does that say about the state of gender equality in medicine?

Where does this leave us?

I am a female medical student in 2024.

I care deeply about my profession, and I look forward to working as a doctor. I work hard to be the best clinician I can be; I hold myself to high standards and I behave ‘professionally’.

On placement, I have been mistaken for a nurse more times than I can count. Senior doctors have asked my relationship status, and if I plan to have children. I have been sexualised. My career aspirations have been assumed (general practice, not surgery, obviously). My female peers have been sexually harassed and even assaulted by clinical supervisors.

That’s just in the workplace. What about our personal lives, our social media content, the policing of our bodies in the name of professionalism?

We are well aware that, as medical students, this is just the beginning.

The BMA’s Sexism in medicine report found that 91% of women doctors in the UK have experienced sexism at work. Following this a report from the Working Party on Sexual Harassment in Surgery found that almost 30% of female surgeons had been sexually assaulted by a colleague; 2023 was dubbed a #MeToo moment for the NHS.

#MedBikini is the tip of the iceberg.

Ending sexism in medicine?

Conversations are happening, and change is beginning.

In 2023, the BMA launched a pledge to end sexism in medicine.

If you experience, or witness, discrimination and harassment – speak up. As medical students, we rotate through a range of clinical teams. We may be able to use our ‘outsider’ status to our advantage. Challenge biases – your own as well as others’.

Start conversations about sexism in medicine with your peers. Listen to the diverse experiences of others. Let’s use our privileges (such as race, gender, seniority) to elevate quieter voices.

We are the next generation of doctors. We have the power to shape our future workplaces.

If you’re a medical student and you’d like to speak to someone about any of these issues, please contact your local medical students committee rep.

Imogen Arden-Jones (@imydoesmed) is a year 6 medical student and BMA medical students committee representative at the University of Cambridge