Over half of female surgeons in the UK have experienced workplace discrimination

Over half of female surgeons in the UK have experienced workplace discrimination with orthopaedic doctors facing the most sexism, a poll revealed.

Despite women making up half of medical school entrants, less than a third opt to become surgeons – a specialism widely acknowledged to be male-dominated.

A confidential online poll asked women about their perceptions and experiences of working as surgeons and has been published in the British Medical Journal.

It was sent to members of the Association of Surgeons of Great Britain and Ireland Facebook group, and was posted on Twitter for two weeks.

The majority (88 per cent) of the 81 respondents felt surgery remained male-dominated and six out of ten reported they had experienced or witnessed discrimination against women in the workplace.

One in five described a “tangible glass ceiling” for female surgeons and an overriding feeling that the working culture is geared towards men.

Orthopaedics was seen as the most sexist of the surgical specialities (53 per cent), followed by cardiothoracic (16 per cent) and general surgery (13 per cent).

A quarter of the surgeons said they would be more attracted to surgery if it projected a ‘less masculine image’.

Half of the respondents agreed that motherhood and childcare commitments are the greatest obstacles for women wanting a career in surgery and just under a quarter said there needed to be less of a stigma around women having a career break.

The results also revealed other certain perceived barriers to a surgical career for women – including a poor work-life balance, an inflexibility around part-time working, gender stereotyping and a lack of formal mentoring.

Respondents also felt patients were often just as guilty of assuming women couldn’t be surgeons.

One respondent said: “Significantly more patients call me nurse or lady doctor than any of my colleagues.”

Another response read: “Patients don’t think women can be doctors, let alone
surgeons.”

Researchers suggest that fewer women represented at senior level could reinforce the idea that surgery is a male-dominated environment.

Other suggestions for tackling discrimination included more female role models and mentors; flexible training/career options; better work-life balance; and improved understanding of the impact of childcare responsibilities on working life.

Lead author Professor Dr Maria Irene Bellini at Imperial College London said: “This survey illuminates the lived realities of female surgeons in the UK today.

“Gender bias and discrimination were reported by 59 per cent of the participants irrespective of level of training and experience, suggesting an ancient culture pervading our society since the 1800s, at the time of the first female surgeon in the UK, Elizabeth Garrett.

“The greatest perceived barrier to women wanting to pursue and persist with a career in surgery was incongruity with motherhood and childcare commitments.

“The general perception is that family-friendliness may be hard to reconcile with the working requirements of the surgical specialty, often involving patient treatment of unknown length or at unsocial times of day or night.

“This lack of support is potentially leading to burn out.

“Thus, for some women, the only perceived option to preserve their own mental health is represented by withdrawing from surgical training.

“The glass ceiling for women in science is created by people, of either gender, and it can only be broken if all are aware of it and change their behaviour and attitude towards it.”

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