Medicine still a white male preserve, but those days are numbered

September 08, 2005

Despite a record number of female medical students, medicine remains a white male dominated profession - but its days as such are numbered, says a paper in this week's BMJ.

Twenty years ago "the old boy network and behind the scenes telephone calls were dominant factors in the selection process, and many women who wanted to reduce their hours to spend time with their children were not regarded as proper doctors" says Isobel Allen, Professor of Health and Social Policy.

Since then however the proportion of women consultants has doubled from 12% in 1983 to 25% in 2004. General practice has also seen figures multiply - from 19% in 1983 to 38% now.

Changes to the medical career structure in the last few years, such as more flexible training programmes, and shorter hours due to the European Working Time Directive, have all made the career more viable for women.

Ongoing concerns remain, however. Only 7% of consultant surgeons are female for instance, and women doctors do not even make up 40% of the workforce in either general practice or hospital medicine, says Professor Allen. Also, less women than men are in registered doctor training posts.

Academic medicine - training the doctors of tomorrow - is a career path facing serious shortages of women, as the demands of juggling research, being a doctor, and having a family life when little career flexibility is on offer has made the job unattractive to women.

Women often have an 'M-shaped' career structure, showing that contrary to popular belief, many women do not abandon medicine after childbirth but return to their careers.

Despite this, there is still suspicion about those who have not reached a certain grade by a certain age. It is time to reject old fashioned practices and attitudes like these, which deny women the opportunity to make their full contribution, says the author.

The days when pursuing a career in medicine meant losing the right to a 'normal' life for either men or women are rightly gone, says Professor Allen. "It was not a golden age and will never return," she concludes.


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