Why the glass ceiling is even thicker for women than we thought

Written by By Sally Brown, CNN Contributors

I was just 33 when I started in medicine, with a long career ahead of me, studying to be a general surgeon. I had just set up a small maternity practice, so it seemed logical that this was where I should set up my career.

It turned out to be a good decision. Since then, I have always believed that any progress for women is up to us as women. So I was shocked and saddened by a new study suggesting that the glass ceiling for female doctors is even thicker than we thought.

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The report, by the Royal College of Physicians, suggests that a quarter of U.K. trainee medics are women — that’s 20,000 women a year entering the profession. If you worked through the numbers, however, it would look slightly different.

A story of exclusion

While the initial results of the study (published in The BMJ this week) show that women doctors make up over a quarter of trainee medics, they make up just under 13% of senior managers in the NHS. They account for 21% of the training staff and 20% of all trainee doctors but just 2% of senior doctors.

The data is available in full on the Royal College of Physicians’ website and will be used to take stock of the progress of women into medical school and career.

What it implies is that women are excluded from the top echelons of medicine, and I hope the public will be given time to consider the wider picture before judging us.

Dr. Jane Harvey-Wilkinson, King’s College London, consultant orthopaedic surgeon. Credit: Courtesy Jane Harvey-Wilkinson

It is only in recent years that more and more women are going into medical school — and it is pleasing to see that the number of women graduating in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) is rising.

But there are some skills that we learn as early as nine years old that go unrecognized and not taught at school that make such a large difference.

It might be extra effort on the part of parents to help with homework, or helping do the laundry, or taking the tea and dirty clothes. Sometimes boys are already more interested in sport and moving about.

Disease prevention and treatment

But that doesn’t mean that all boys are instinctively more sporty and active; it just shows that they may be more used to dealing with things in that way.

Here are two stories that illustrate the gender gap in medicine that Dr. Sue Burke learned in medical school, even though she loves to run and do outdoor things.

One was about a little boy who had a serious abscess on his leg and was brought in by his parents, who thought he had the measles.

At the office, the junior doctor tried to put her hand down the boy’s trousers to find the abscess. When she could not do so, she brought the child back in for further treatment because the parents did not think it was serious. The boy then had the infection gone for six months.

The other story was about a young girl whose hand was stuck in a drain. She couldn’t open it. It took 10 times to get the lower part of her finger out.

This had been going on for weeks, and the girl’s parents decided not to have the finger removed because they were worried about what might happen to the girl when she came out.

Without any helpful feedback or explanation, the doctor could only come up with the idea that she should ask the parents if she could come and give them an explanation. This was dismissed and said they should be happy with the regular explanations that she had always given them. The child was taken out and given the option of taking painkillers or having stitches. The child did both.

Girls respond better to a concerted effort

Both cases involve a woman doctor, and I am sure Dr. Burke knows from her time on junior doctor teams that the male response is definitely different.

That one percent: that’s what motivates women doctors every day, but it’s also part of the global gender balance — and the message needs to be spread more widely.

Let’s not be manipulated by sensational headlines or mere statistics; let’s do a far bigger job in emphasizing the real differences in how men and women function in and out of medicine.

That could be reassuring, because girls do respond better to a concerted effort than boys do.

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