Employers should consider how to improve the integration of women into the medical workforce, as new research highlights issues with male-dominated workplaces, the BMA has said.
Researchers investigated the surgical specialty, a field in which women account for 16 per cent of surgical trainees and 8 per cent of surgical consultants. Women account for the majority of entrants to UK medical schools, and there have been corresponding increases in the number of women in specialties such as general practice, paediatrics and anaesthetics.
The conclusions reached by Queensland University psychology lecturer Kim Peters suggest male-dominated workplaces, such as the surgical specialty, can undermine women’s sense of career progression and perception of how they ‘fit in’.
BMA equality and diversity committee chair Krishna Kasaraneni said certain specialties were ‘lagging behind’ and should look at the career paths of new generations of doctors, as more women entered medical school and training.
‘There are certain stereotypes that have persisted for too long, but the tide is changing,’ said Dr Kasaraneni.
‘If particular problems lie in surgical specialties due to the image, or working practice, then this is something the profession needs to look at and then make it more applicable to the new workforce. These specialties have to try to take things in a positive, constructive way to meet the demands of the workforce, as we now work in a very different NHS culture.’
‘Desire to belong’
Ms Peters, who surveyed 1,149 UK-based trainee surgeons for her study, said: ‘There are many factors that are likely to play a role in the under-representation of women in surgery and other male-dominated fields.
‘But our data is certainly consistent with our claim that one of the factors that seems to matter is perceptions of a lack of fit.
‘We have found similar dynamics in other research that we have conducted in other settings, and our claim is also confirmed by what many female surgeons say to us about their experiences.
‘From a psychological perspective, people have a strong desire to belong, which means that any cues that one does not belong — or fit in — can be very harmful over time.’
Ms Peters added that even though there was no evidence women were performing worse than men in surgery, a lack of confidence and perception of under-performing meant they were more likely to consider dropping out. She said this could explain why, although women made up 14.8 per cent of trainees in 1998, only 7.7 per cent were surgical consultants a decade later.
Raising women’s profile
An RCS (Royal College of Surgeons of England) spokesperson said: ‘We are committed to attracting more talented female doctors into surgery and to addressing the reasons why women may be deterred from training to be surgeons.
‘Our Women in Surgery group encourages and inspires women to fulfil their surgical ambitions and raises the profile of women in surgery by providing visible female role models.
‘We also hold women in surgery leadership events, provide networking opportunities and have piloted a peer-mentoring scheme.
‘It is the responsibility of every surgeon to be a positive role model and help attract the best candidates, regardless of gender.’
RCS president Norman Williams said college figures showed the proportion of women becoming consultant surgeons had risen from 4.7 per cent in 2001 to 9.2 per cent in 2012 but comparatively small numbers chose surgery as a career.
In a riposte to claims in a national newspaper article that women doctors were not committed to the NHS, Professor Williams said: ‘It is up to us as a profession — and medicine as a whole — to look at why women may be deterred from becoming surgeons or other specialists and find ways to overcome any barriers they face.’
Professor Williams said he was ‘very concerned about the tone and content’ of the article by consultant surgeon J Meirion Thomas, which appeared in the Daily Mail claiming an increasing proportion of young women doctors was having a negative effect on the NHS.
CC surgical specialties lead Stephen Blair said he felt the specialty had done well in encouraging new women into the discipline in recent years, and argued that surgery had moved on from the stereotypical image of the past.
Read more about Dr Peters’s research
Read Professor Williams’s response to J Meirion Thomas
The story so far