Skip to main content

Just 13% of UK surgical consultants are female

Medical equality undermined by mistaken male doctors

Progress on gender equality in the medical profession could be hampered by male doctors who overestimate female representation, researchers say.

The findings come from a survey of 425 UK doctors, who were asked to estimate the proportion of women in various roles in medicine, and about their levels of support for gender-equality initiatives.

Both male and female doctors consistently overestimated the proportion of women in a wide range of roles and areas within medicine.

However, a difference emerged in the second part of the survey: while women who overestimated female representation still supported gender-equality initiatives, men who made this mistake showed significantly lower support.

There are now more female than male GPs in the UK, and more than two thirds of GP trainees are women. Meanwhile, some specialisms remain dominated by men. For example, just 13% of surgical consultants are female.

The new research was carried out by the universities of Exeter and Oxford, and the Australian National University.

"While progress has been made in gender representation in the medical field, our research illustrates that there are still barriers to gender equality," said Dr Christopher Begeny, of the University of Exeter.

"It is those individuals – particularly men – who overestimate the true progress in women’s representation who are at highest risk of undermining it.

"Male doctors routinely overestimated female representation and, being blind to this fact, they are then less willing than others to support gender-equality initiatives.

"These misperceptions can have insidious consequences, potentially undermining or even reversing the true progress made toward gender equality.

"When people 'move on' from gender equality concerns, it can make them more prone to exhibit bias against women."

The study's participants, 47% of them female, included consultants, GPs and medical trainees.

They were asked to estimate female representation in general practice, medical specialties and surgical specialties, before indicating their support for gender-equality initiatives such as the General Medical Council’s Gender Equality Scheme, and Women in Surgery at the Royal College of Surgeons.

Among male and female respondents who correctly estimated female representation, the gap between them in their support for gender-equality initiatives was small, with men’s support nominally lower than women’s.

Yet among those who overestimated female representation by just 10%, that gender gap grew by 150% – reflecting a significant drop in support among male doctors. Women’s support remained steady.

The study did not assess why most doctors overestimated female representation, but this is possibly due to rising female representation – and focus on this issue – in recent years.

Dr Rebecca Grossman, a surgical registrar and MRC Clinical Research Training Fellow from the University of Oxford, initiated the study after reading a comment from the former President of the Royal College of Pathologists Dr Suzy Lishman CBE, who often heard that "all the medical royal colleges are led by women now", when in reality, at the time, only 9 of the 24 colleges had female leaders.

This comment reflected the attitudes that Dr Grossman encountered during her surgical training.

The researchers suggest methods for correcting common misperceptions among doctors, including information campaigns led by supervisors, and "affirmation" training to address the concerns of any male doctors who perceive rising female representation as a threat.

Professor Michelle Ryan, a part-time Professor of Social and Organisational Psychology at the University of Exeter and now the Director of the Global Institute for Women's Leadership at The Australian National University, said: "Amidst ongoing efforts to promote gender equality in the medical field, and more broadly, this research illustrates that it is important not only to consider the true representation of women but also other people’s perceptions of women’s representation.

"While we are making inroads towards gender equality, premature beliefs about parity in representation may have the unintended consequence of stymieing the progress we are making. We need to be realistic about where we are, and how much there is still to do."

The findings of the new research echo those of an earlier paper on gender bias among vets.

The study was funded by the European Research Council.

The paper, published in the journal BMJ Open, is entitled: "Overestimating women’s representation in medicine: A survey of medical professionals’ estimates, and their (un)willingness to support gender-equality initiatives."

Date: 21 March 2022

Read more University News