‘Picture in your mind a consultant surgeon.’ This was the first thing that one of the speakers at the Women in Surgery conference said, ‘Now raise your hand if you thought of a male’ I was part of the overwhelming majority of people who raised their hands. I was unable to think of one female consultant surgeon with whom I have come into close contact with so far in my 13 week hospital placement. I pictured my past Consultant: a brilliant teacher; keen to get us to learn; and male. When you think about it, this is hardly surprising – with only 8% of Consultant surgeons being female, it’s no wonder the image conjured by over 90% of people in the room was a male.
As we celebrate International Women’s Day it seems appropriate to speak about the role of females within the medical community. Victoria Bleasdale, one of the co-organisers for the conference said “We wanted to reward attendees with encouragement, support and strong role models. We hope that hearing from women who have achieved the dream, and have true passion for their chosen speciality will inspire female medical students to seize the countless opportunities that are now there for the taking.”
With 55% of medical students being female, this drops to 26% of surgical trainees, which then drops even lower to 8% of surgical consultants. But why is there this disparity between males and females in this high position within our NHS?
Women are a massively untapped resource in surgery, making up approximately half of the doctors in the UK yet still being massively underrepresented at this level. The Royal College of Surgeons this year has its first female President in its 214 year long history Miss Clare Marx who said “I’ve always thought of myself as a doctor and a surgeon. I just happen to be female.”
There is little evidence of discrimination at entry and interviews, with no significant difference in the proportional admission of male and female candidates – the lack of females at the application stage appears to be self-limiting. The stereotype of surgery as a masculine discipline is off-putting for many prospective female surgeons and is damaging to the reputation of the profession. Females are more likely to drop out of training than their male counterpart (in what’s being referred to as the opt-out revolution) and are less likely to return to surgery following a career break.
The key take away from one of the speakers was: male or female you can’t have it all, yes the training is long and sacrifices will have to be made, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t good. It’s a busy lifestyle and whilst you may not get exactly what you want you can make the best and learn and still have a wonderful life.
She identified that one of the main barriers is people’s perceptions of surgeons and a feeling of inadequacy, and she thinks it’s important to not perpetuate the myth that surgeons are extraordinary, but that anyone with enough motivation and dedication can do it.
So what are the solutions?
Closing the leadership gap: the lack of females in senior surgical positions has been linked with the low number of females applying to the surgical training programme and has also been associated with feeling alienated and the discontinuation of surgical education.
Flexible training options: seen by some leaders in education as a ‘soft option’ this perception needs to change to encourage women to return to surgical training as it is often daunting to return to training after a career break due to maternity leave or caring for children. It must be pointed out that this would be beneficial to male trainees who wish to balance a career and family life.
Mentoring: again, this is another method to create the feeling of belonging and to create role models. There is a women in surgery northwest mentoring scheme to improve the feeling of inclusion.
I leave you with this; a father and his son are in a car crash, the father is fatally injured and the son is rushed to hospital in an ambulance. The surgeon enters the theatre and exclaims ‘I cannot operate on this boy for he is my son’. How is this possible?