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The changing face of women in medicine

As a current fourth year medical student in the United Kingdom, I am in a year in which the number of females supersedes the number of males. This trend certainly isn’t unique to my own medical school, with a General Medical Council (GMC) report stating that women now make up 55% of all undergraduate medical students. This current trend is a change, as in the past medicine has always been a male-dominated profession. The first Royal College of Physicians in the United Kingdom was founded in 1518 and for the first 400 years women were excluded from membership. It was only after the societal changes of the late 19th and 20th centuries that they opened their doors to the first female student in 1909. Reflecting on this, the last century has been an extremely exciting time for women in medicine. The traditional stereotype that men are doctors and women are nurses is finally being put to bed, so much so that that the proportion of female doctors is edging ever closer to making up 50% of the medical register. I feel fortunate to be studying in a time where I haven’t felt held back (but rather, possibly helped) by my gender.

I think I decided I wanted to pursue medicine at around the age of 14. At a careers day at school, a GP had come in to talk to interested students and spoke through what her job as a doctor entailed. I remember thinking it sounded extremely diverse and was attracted to the fact that no day was ever the same. She also explained that it’s a career in which there is scope for lifelong learning and development, an aspect that really appealed to me. The only healthcare professional in my family is my auntie, who is a nurse. She helped me get work experience at a busy London hospital and during this time, I saw some of her cancer patients with her. She is such a warm-hearted person and I was really struck by her bedside manner and how she took such time with people. As cliché as it sounds, I always knew I wanted to go into a caring profession where I had the opportunity to meet and help others and this work experience really showed me there is a huge capacity to do this in medicine.

‘Volunteering in a school for orphans, Zimbabwe’. Used with permission by Evie Watts.

My time as an undergraduate medical student has been nothing short of amazing so far. I love the fact that every day is so different; one day I could be scrubbed in assisting with a cesarean section and the next I could be out doing house calls with a GP. I have the opportunity to meet such a wide spectrum of people that, if I hadn’t chosen medicine, I would never cross paths with. I will never ever forget the magic of the first birth I ever witnessed. I was so overcome with emotion and I will forever keep the thank you card I received from the parents for being a part of their child’s birth. I have also met several people during their last days of life — it really is such a privilege to be able to meet and connect with patients and families in such a vulnerable time.

In the past year, I studied for a Masters in Global Health at a university in the Netherlands. As part of this program, I was able to travel to India for four months and Zimbabwe for two. These travels reminded me that despite my own experience of gender not being a hindrance, in other countries there is a lot of work to be done in order for gender equality to be achieved. My Masters thesis looked at the barriers to Sexual and Reproductive Health services for students in tertiary education in Zimbabwe. I was struck by the lack of sexual decision-making power the girls I spoke to had and the judgement and shame girls received for being sexually active, whilst their male counterparts were praised.

Despite this, I met incredibly inspiring people working to promote the sexual health of women in the country. In addition to these individuals, recent innovations made by women (such as the menstrual cup) will serve to cause dramatic improvements in women’s health. I met females in India who had to live in an outhouse, often with animals, whilst they were menstruating as they were deemed to be ‘dirty’. These women often used rags as they couldn’t afford disposable tampons and pads, so new innovations, such as the menstrual cap, have scope to have a huge impact.

‘Visiting a rural tribal community in Karnataka, India’. Photo used with permission by Evie Watts.

Although I haven’t encountered any obstacles pertaining to my gender so far, I think it would be naïve to say that complete gender equality exists. A BMJ report from last year stated that in 2016, women working full time earned on average 34% less than their male counterparts. Even more worrying, this pay gap has grown over the past decade. One explanation for this is that men are historically more likely to work overtime, but another contributing factor is that women fall behind when they take time out to have children. A spokesperson for the British Medical Association has said that this points towards a need for women to receive more support, including leadership training, increased mentoring, and more flexible working opportunities. I think that in the future it is the responsibility of everyone in medicine, not just females, to push for change in the system in order to achieve equality in the field.

All in all, I would strongly encourage any female interested to consider a career in medicine. In the past 100 years, competent and deserving women have made integral contributions to the sphere of medicine, which is a trajectory set only to continue. Last year, the Royal College of Physicians showcased an exhibition titled “Women in medicine: a celebration” which paid tribute to remarkable achievements made by female doctors. Every day I encounter female medical professionals (be it nurses, health care assistants, or doctors) who, through their hard work and passion in their professions, make a huge impact in patients’ lives. As I progress in my career, I am so eager to see what fantastic achievements both current and future female medical students will recognize.

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