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#ChooseToChallenge: International Women’s Day and the changing RCP landscape

This International Women’s Day, we’ve taken a look back at the progress we’ve made towards equality for women at the RCP, and we’ve asked some of our female officers and leaders to share their experiences of equality in the workplace.

There are still significant disparities between men and women in the NHS workforce and in leadership positions, but the picture looks to be improving, and the medical workforce is changing fast. While fewer than half (44.7%) of executive and non-executive roles across NHS trusts are held by women, this has increased from 39% in 2017. The consultant workforce is still only 38% female, although this number is increasing year on year.

It’s no secret that much of the RCP’s history has been dominated by men, as women were excluded from being licensed or becoming members until the early 20th century. Today, the RCP is committed to achieving equity for all, and to reflect this in the way we are led. At present:

  • 12/27 officer and senior officer
  • 5/7 censor
  • 2/5 international officer and
  • 4/8 RCP executive leadership team

roles are held by women, and the RCP is working to implement the recommendations of an independent report, published in 2020, which focused on the RCP’s performance on diversity in our workforce. This is huge progress from just 10 years ago, when RCP leadership positions were almost wholly held by men (women held only four of 31 officer or senior officer positions in 2011).

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is #ChooseToChallenge, because a challenged world is an alert world, and from challenge comes change. We asked some of our officers and leaders about their experiences on this year’s theme.

I was the only BAME female in my class of over 100 students. I was lucky though to have been surrounded by very strong female role models during my formative years, who made me realise that it was possible to have both a family and a career in medicine. It hasn't all been smooth sailing; I was often told a career in hospital medicine was more suited to men, so I have always had to work harder than my male colleagues to prove I am not inferior, in both clinical work and leadership. Things are now better for women in medicine, but many inequalities and inequities remain – we are lucky that the RCP has so many strong female role models to inspire our upcoming female colleagues. I hope by the time I retire most of the inequity that I have experienced will be a thing of the past.
Dr Jyoti Baharani, RCP censor

My son, now 34 years old, was born 6 weeks early, the day after I led a cardiac arrest as a medical registrar. In 1986 maternity leave for a medical registrar was a rare occurrence and I negotiated for a colleague who was doing research to do mine. Six weeks was all she could spare, so I went back to work on what was originally my due date! My two daughters are recently qualified doctors and I am so pleased that maternity leave and other opportunities for women have improved in the last 3 decades!
Áine Burns, RCP senior censor and vice president for education and training

With every year that passes I realise how much gender issues affected me throughout my career, and this makes me passionate about advocating for women during their careers. I am struck by how poorly working women are served when trying to conceive (or indeed taking the decision not to), being pregnant, and returning to work after maternity. It isn’t enough to treat women in the ‘same’ way as their male colleagues – we need to look beyond that, and support and celebrate each individual’s uniqueness. My academic career fell down partly due to a lack of female role models and support in forging a post-doctoral path while managing a busy clinical job and being pregnant with twins, and surviving (and enjoying!) their early years. Since then I am so proud of the many female colleagues I have supported along the way through programmes such as RCP’s Emerging Women Leaders – my greatest joy comes from hearing a past trainee say ‘because you told me I should try, I did - and I did it!’
Jo Szram, RCP Linacre fellow and elected councillor

I increased from 0.7 to 0.8 whole-time equivalents (WTE) in January 2020, when I was appointed to champion of flexible training and support at my trust. Soon after, I found myself working all hours as the infectious disease clinical lead during the pandemic. I apologised to my line manager in mid-March, as I had not had much time to focus on flexible working. I was told perhaps I needed to give it up as I had ‘not really delivered’ in the 6 weeks I had been in post ... I didn’t give it up and have I think ‘delivered’ since then!
Sarah Logan, deputy director, RCP Medical Workforce Unit

As a junior doctor I was influenced by some impressive role models, both female and male. I can recall many excellent female registrars, who have gone on to secure senior roles, one as president of a royal college. When I became a consultant, I was the only woman in the department, but that quickly changed, and we are now in the majority. There is still clearly much to be done to ensure that we have equal numbers of men and women in senior roles in the NHS. I am indebted to many female role models in my early career, who believed in me when I was lacking in self-confidence. I hope in turn that I have been able to provide some similar support to younger doctors.
Helen Gentles, medical director (patient involvement)

As a second generation BAME female doctor, I have faced issues around capability, self-doubt, confidence and identity. These were exacerbated by my own background, culture and social barriers as well as practical difficulties around work–life balance. Gender equality and recognition that women particularly from diverse backgrounds with other additional family and other commitments can equally achieve is important. I was really fortunate to have great mentors particularly during challenging times. I was very well-supported by colleagues and teams who had confidence in me and my abilities and supported my career progression. Role modelling, mentoring and building networks with early career support and leadership training is key to addressing the challenges women face in their leadership careers. It gives me a great sense of satisfaction to be able to help others at a personal, regional and national level. I try my best to support medical students, junior doctors and consultant colleagues to have the self-belief and confidence to progress in their careers and that challenges will always be there, but they have the support and will be able to overcome them.
Dr Mumtaz Patel, vice president RCP Global

In my early career, there was blatant sexism, discrimination and inequality in medicine. Having to ‘prove’ yourself as a competent female physician was interesting, to say the least – having self-belief was essential. Many stories are horrifying – a senior clinician, observing that I was wearing a wedding ring, informed me during a viva that I’d be better suited to being a housewife! Things have moved on, but there remain subtle biases – the gender pay gap is one example. We cannot underestimate the power of role models who are not only visible but also sponsor women, encouraging, nurturing and opening doors that may otherwise remain closed. ‘Pay it forward’ is a must, so I now coach and mentor women as part of the RCP Emerging Female Leaders programme and take delight in their successes. Sharing our stories gives others the power to challenge.
Dr Olwen Williams, RCP Wales vice president

I feel privileged to have had so many wonderful opportunities in my career, but on reflection I have often heard negative comments directed towards women, myself included:

‘Women shouldn’t be given clinical excellence awards because they have husbands to support them.’

‘You can’t have your cake and eat it – chose a career or motherhood, you won’t be able to do both.’

‘I don’t want any more female registrars… they are great, but they get pregnant and leave you in the lurch.’

Over the years, I have become bolder at politely challenging these comments. If someone says something inappropriate, I will highlight it... and people are more careful what they say the next time.
Professor Dame Jane Dacre, RCP immediate past president

Personally, I have encountered little inequality during my career, thanks to those doctors ahead of me who did choose to challenge the status quo. My career path was forged by women challenging traditional training patterns, like the senior registrar in emergency medicine I worked with, who had to complete her training many miles away from her family, in one of the few part-time posts available in the early 1990s. By the time I applied to train flexibly, a decade later, there were programmes and support for trainees working less than full-time. My challenge now is to recognise and address inequalities that do persist, in order to keep that career path as clear as possible for female doctors in the future.
Louise Bate, clinical engagement lead, RCP Spine