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IWD 2020: Overcoming cultural barriers as a woman in medicine

As part of a series of blogs celebrating International Women's Day 2020, Dr Anu Trehan discusses the challenges she has overcome during her medical career.

I remember being a fourth year medical student at Manchester University when a consultant asked me: ‘How do you see your career progressing?’

I told him that while I enjoyed medicine and its challenges, I knew I would never be a consultant. ‘Why?’ he asked. I just shrugged; it was a well-known fact that people like me (Asian, female and with no particular outstanding talents) didn’t become consultants. I had accepted this. I was very surprised at his reaction, when he said that there was no ‘one type’ of consultant and even timid souls like me could roar. He reassured me that if I worked hard, and persisted despite the guaranteed obstacles, staying honest to the principles of being a good doctor, then I would probably find I would succeed.

Encouraged by his words of support and reassurance that dedication really does pay off, I managed to prove him right by becoming a consultant acute physician in 2008 at Salford Royal Hospital. I had obtained a dual CCT in renal and general medicine and had gained my MD that year from the University of Manchester.

Being an Asian woman in medicine has definitely had its challenges, the biggest of which is the cultural norms that surround my identity. There has been pressure, not only from concerned relatives, but critical strangers, on how I must behave. I’ve had to deal with the discomfort of others disapproving of me for being ‘too ambitious’. It is difficult to see behaviour from one set of doctors is applauded, while the same behaviour is frowned when it comes from people like me. This can be a very isolating experience.

Being an Asian woman in medicine has definitely had its challenges, the biggest of which is the cultural norms that surround my identity.

Dr Anu Trehan

It’s been important for me to keep a close network of female doctors. At the beginning of our careers, we would meet each week for dinner to discuss our experiences as women pursuing a field that has historically been dominated by men. It has been a great support system, and we still meet regularly 15 years later. It helps to know that your colleagues are often going through the same experiences.

My family and community have been a great source of strength over my career and I still regularly see the people I grew up with as a child. This adds an invaluable perspective. At one of my lowest points, I went to India to attend a family wedding and, while talking to my great grandmother, she reminded me of how far women have come over the generations. Her pride in my achievements helped keep my faith strong.

I have thoroughly enjoyed my career so far and the opportunities I have been able to take. Often when working, I have become absorbed, and find that time seems to disappear. This sense of immersion and engagement fostered my interest to learn more and acquire further skills and expertise, and has led to me taking on further challenges and working in different fields. For me, the journey has always been better than the end.

My career has involved everything from teaching and working as an academic lead to my most recent role as the associate international director for international medical graduates at the RCP.

So, what’s my advice to women wanting to pursue a career in medicine? As with anything worthwhile, it takes patience and resilience to grow your career. The population needs good physicians – and women make great physicians. They add a different perspective and can make strong contributions when influencing decisions about patient care and overall strategy.

Make sure you connect with people who are prepared to be honest with you about how hard it can be, and who can be there to offer you support when the going gets tough.

Remember to always give something back to the communities, people and families who have helped you along the way. Become a role model to the future generation coming up behind you.