It was 40 years in 2018 since I started at Stowe as one of the first intake of girls in what had been an all boys’ school. Since then of course, Stowe has become fully co-ed.
But as a society, how much progress have we really made on gender equality? Here is a letter I’ve written to my new mentee, a female pupil at Stowe, today applying for medical school to help her navigate gender bias in her career. When I went to medical school about 40% of students were female; now they represent the majority of graduates.
I am writing to you with some advice on life after Stowe to help you in your future medical career. If like me you got into a bit of trouble at school with a few misdemeanours, I recommend you hold onto your rebellious side as it will serve you well. Well behaved women seldom make history!
Firstly, outside (and perhaps inside) school there is a different set of rules for boys and girls. They are so embedded that they are hard to see. So hard in fact that I only saw them after I had had three children and my career was on hold! It is fantastic you have chosen science and got into medicine. Next, be careful in your choice of specialty to fulfil your ambitions rather than to solely fit in with family life. Women now make up the majority of GPs but still only 12% of consultant surgeons. Don’t let this put you off!
Secondly, work hard and build on all your interests and passions. When you are given opportunities, take them. I used a senior leadership programme to write a report on gender equality in the NHS which opened doors and gave me national leadership experience.
Medicine is a noble career that serves others with multiple ways to progress. I have been a GP, Public Health and Medical Director. However, it is harder for women doctors than men to reach senior leadership positions. While the majority of NHS staff are women (77%), they make up only 40% of NHS Board members, 25% of medical directors and as few as 16% senior GP leaders. A national review has recently identified a £10,000 gender pay gap for doctors.
Be good to your colleagues, a team player and make contacts. Through my professional networks I made contact with the Office of the Focal Point for Women, UN Women. Together we wrote a report on the application of the UN System Wide Acton Plan (UNSWAP) to the NHS which led to the adoption of the goal 50:50 by 2020 on NHS Boards. Good relationships meant our report got traction.
It is a huge privilege to be a doctor. Your role is not just to treat but to normalise and prevent illness. Women across the globe experience staggering inequality in all aspects of life as well as health. As a doctor you are in the position not just to treat people but also to lobby for change and be a voice where they can’t. Role model your support for female colleagues, encourage your daughters to support other women and gather support from male colleagues for gender equality.
The NHS needs to help you achieve your potential to treat people, make breakthroughs and excel. Four decades on you are still likely to meet a glass ceiling, so please be prepared for the challenge. Also, when you see injustice, try to call it out or maybe change it!
Ref: Jefferson L et al Women in medicine: historical perspectives and recent trends British Medical Bulletin, Volume 114, Issue 1, 1 June 2015, Pages 5–15 https://academic.oup.com/bmb/article/114/1/5/246075
The Kings Fund. The medical workforce. https://www.kingsfund.org.uk/projects/time-think-differently/trends-workforce-medical
Newman P. NHS Women in Leadership: Plan for Action https://www.nhsemployers.org/case-studies-and-resources/2015/12/nhs-women-in-leadership-plan-for-action-by-penny-newman