Intended for healthcare professionals

Education And Debate

Women doctors and their careers: what now?

BMJ 2005; 331 doi: (Published 08 September 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;331:569
  1. Isobel Allen, emeritus professor of health and social policy1
  1. 1 Policy Studies Institute, University of Westminster, London NW1 3SR
  • Accepted 31 May 2005

Outmoded career structures and attitudes mean that the UK risks losing out on the valuable contribution women doctors can make, especially in the second half of their careers


Many people in the medical profession still view women doctors with scepticism despite their increasing numbers. It is nearly 20 years since I was commissioned by the Department of Health to help them assess the implications of the fact that women would soon account for half of medical graduates.1 That research and its follow-up2 found that both men and women experienced similar problems and constraints in their careers, suffering from what they regarded as a rigid and conservative career structure. They overwhelmingly supported the provision of more flexible working patterns so that all doctors could lead a normal life. How far have women doctors progressed and what do they feel about the profession?

Change in culture

In 1986, many trainees had to work 120 hours a week and move to different locations every few months. Women were asked the most outrageous questions at interviews, the old boy network and behind the scenes telephone calls were dominant factors in the selection process, and women who wanted to reduce their hours to spend time with their children were not regarded as proper doctors. Things have changed in medicine, but perhaps not as fast as in the outside world. Powerful and influential doctors continue to express fears that the increasing proportion of women in medicine will lead to a loss of power and influence and professional status.3 4 But even if their fears were well founded, the progress of women in medicine is less than many people imagine.

Entry to medical school

Women are indeed accounting for a larger proportion of medical graduates. All through the 1960s women accounted for about 25% of those entering medical school. By 1975 …

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