Intended for healthcare professionals


Is this a watershed moment for women in academic medicine?

BMJ 2016; 355 doi: (Published 25 October 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;355:i5345
  1. Amy Alice Carson, academic foundation year 2 doctor,
  2. Prianka Padmanathan, academic foundation year 2 doctor
  1. Bristol Royal Infirmary
  1. amyalicecarson{at}


Women have traditionally been under-represented in academia but are things beginning to change? Amy Alice Carson and Prianka Padmanathan share their experiences

A recent increase in the number of women becoming political leaders has been heralded by the media as a victory for gender equality. As two female doctors about to embark on careers in academic medicine we wonder if this will hold true for us.

The statistics paint a discouraging picture. Within academia, women are still vastly under-represented in senior roles. In higher education and research less than a quarter of professors in the UK are female.1 This imbalance is replicated in leadership roles within medicine, despite women being predicted to form the majority of the medical workforce in the NHS next year.2 Unsurprisingly, first authors in medical journals are significantly less likely to be female.3

Unfortunately, this disparity extends beyond employment and research output. The concerning—and astonishing—revelation that male doctors earned 40% more than their female counterparts in 2013, compared with 21% in 2004,4 prompted the government to commission a report on eliminating the pay gap within the medical profession.5

Athena Swan

This relatively recent drive for change has also precipitated initiatives elsewhere. Just over 10 years ago the Athena Swan scheme was established by the Equality Challenge Unit to recognise and encourage good employment practices for women in science and medicine.6 Gold, silver, and bronze awards are granted based on progress in addressing gender inequality. The charter has been signed by all 35 medical schools in the UK.7

Evaluation of the charter’s impact has generated mixed findings.89 Within departments awarded a silver award, there seemed to be a shift in culture, with staff reporting higher satisfaction regarding career development and opportunities, as well as improved awareness of the processes relating to promotion.8

This year will be the first time that the National Institute of Health Research will only give research funding to departments with a silver Athena Swan award. While there are still challenges, the incentive to address them is now greater than ever.

These much welcomed catalysts of change have permeated our own academic experiences. We have been part of a predominantly female cohort of academic junior doctors, mentored by diverse and inspiring senior academics, who have willingly engaged in honest discussion about the reality of being a woman in academia.

Maternity leave, paternity leave, and part time work

As in other industries, many acknowledge maternity leave and part time working as barriers to progression, often occurring at a time when productivity forms a key marker of success. Progression seems often to be interpreted as a result of luck or a helpful mentor. These barriers would ideally be addressed through legislation to increase uptake of paternity leave and part time working for men, as has been introduced in a number of Scandinavian countries.

Yet, while uptake remains higher among women, it is important to highlight the opportunities created in terms of gaining broader experiences and increasing fulfilment. Our generation of trainees—almost half of whom have taken time out between foundation training year 2 and specialty training—seem to exemplify this outlook. A change in culture to one where leave is gender neutral is likely to lead to a more motivated, diverse, and creative workforce.

These open discussions have enabled us to envisage our own academic careers. We have been filled with a sense of optimism that our generation can redefine pre-existing gender norms. Indeed, we acknowledge that the statistics may suggest otherwise; we, at the very start of our academic pathways could be falsely reassured by the inverse representation of female academics in relation to level of seniority.10 Nonetheless, the alignment of the political context with the priorities of funding bodies and the experiences of those around us might just point to a watershed moment for women in academic medicine.


  • We would like to thank professors Debbie Sharp and Sarah Purdy for sharing their experiences with us.

  • We have read and understood BMJ policy on declaration of interests and declare that we/I have no competing interests.


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