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My gender and my degree

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The first documented English-speaking female doctor was Dr James Miranda Barry, a medical officer of the British Army between 1813 and 1865.  Dr Barry devoted her life to the British Army, earning the highest medical rank available: Inspector General of military hospitals. In an era when academic professions were the sole privilege of male members of society, it was necessary for Dr Barry to conceal her gender, living and practising medicine as a man. Her sad reality was exposed only posthumously where examination revealed her secret. Even in death, she was denied her right to her true identity; her gender kept secret for a further 100 years.

In Australia, medical training was opened to women in the late 1800s, and our first female graduate was registered to practice in 1891. Female medical trainees are now thriving, with female medical graduates in Australia outnumbering men since the mid-1990s. Women currently make up more than two-fifths  of vocational  trainees, focused largely in obstetrics and gynaecology  (74.5 per cent), paediatrics  (72.8 per cent) and general practice (63.1 per cent). Contrast this to the figures from oral and maxillofacial surgery, intensive care and surgery and female trainees make up less than a third of trainees. How, when we see women making up half or more of medical graduates and provisional trainees, are we still seeing unequally representation in the ongoing workforce? What is happening along the way? How and why does a speciality that starts out gender-neutral result in a specialist workforce that is predominantly male?

Fixing gender inequity in medicine requires supporting women in leadership. Diversity in the boardroom enhances corporate performance and, to advance as a profession, we need to attract and retain female leaders. Female specialists, on average, earn 16.6 per cent less than their male counterparts. Although differences in average hours worked account for some discrepancies, other contributory factors include a lack of women in senior positions and a lack of part-time or flexible senior roles. There are already inspiring and engaged female leaders within our profession, leading the world in clinical practice, medical research and education. We should be harnessing their talent to inspire the next generation. 

The changing demographic of our workforce could, in part, be to blame. Trainees are graduating from medical school later and spending more time in vocational training. This leads to greater family and social pressures on trainees and possibly an increase in the need for breaks or flexible training options. Evidence shows that access to flexible training helps to retain female trainees and is desired by both female and male trainees regardless of parental status. We need to dispel the belief that trainees must choose between career and family and instead focus on how we enable trainees to have both.

Gender inequity extends beyond medical workforce.Many of my female colleagues report being mistaken for nursing or allied health staff, a rare occurrence among my male colleagues. Similarly, senior female doctors are often overlooked by patients who prefer to talk to the male junior by her side. How do women thrive in medicine and become leaders when public perception seems to favour male doctors? I watch senior medical staff respond to “Miss” in conversation rather than the respectful “Dr”. Although this seems petty in the scheme of everyday practice, it is easy for female doctors to believe that our degrees come second to our gender. Although the actions of some do not make a rule, it is time that we stand together as a profession to advance women in medicine. It is time to advocate for female leadership not only in the eyes of the profession but also in the eyes of the public.

Equity isn’t about creating a false forced equality. We aren’t all equal and that should be celebrated. It certainly shouldn’t hold us back. Opportunities to become leaders won’t be taken by all of our trainees, but they should be provided to all, regardless of gender.

(A version of this article first appeared in Emergency Medicine Australasia in 2016.)