More and more women are entering medical school each year. In fact, 59% of those accepted to medical school in 2017 were women.
As a result, more female medics are entering medical training programmes than male medics. However, as noted by Christine Tomkins in her article for Notes on women in medicine, women continue to be under-represented in senior grades.
Instead of waiting for the tide to turn, medical students themselves are taking the lead to change perceptions and support female medics to succeed.
May Al-Shawk is a medical student in her penultimate year and president of Athena Swan Student Society at St George’s, University of London. The society promotes gender equality and diversity in STEMM, leadership and healthcare. Ndidi Edi-Osagie, president of Women in Medicine society at Kings College London, is also a fifth year medical student and soon to enter the foundation programme.
When asked why she wanted to pursue medicine, May said her curious nature made it a fitting career choice: “New patients, new colleagues, new diseases, new treatments, everything is constantly changing. But that’s what makes it exciting. I like people, I like problems. I’m a curious person naturally.”
Personal reasons were among the factors for Ndidi, whose mother (a doctor herself), grandmother and great grandmother all worked in the same Manchester hospital. Her grandmother and great grandmother came to the UK as part of Windrush: “Seeing them and growing up with them as role models has been really influential. They made an impression on me and what I wanted to do. Staying with my grandma after school or going to the wards when I was little with my mum; that really influenced me as well.”
It’s not just about having leaders right at the top, it’s about seeing women at all stages of their career.
Aware of the challenges ahead, they both expressed enthusiasm and optimism about entering the foundation programme. As Ndidi says: “You’ve got to go in with the attitude of optimistic, especially as a foundation doctor. It’s going to be tough for everyone and there’s a lot of camaraderie among junior doctors that they’re all sort of in the same boat, with the same stress levels, and it can be really tough in those years. But I’m really, really optimistic about it.”
Supporting women to succeed and lead in medicine
For female future medics like Ndidi and May, considerations about taking time off work for personal reasons are already worries they have. “It’s in the back of your mind, that you’re being pushed,” says Ndidi. “Although we’re seeing so many women in different fields, it is something that young medics or young students are told quite often that it’s difficult, and when you keep getting told that, you start to believe that it’s more difficult and it might put you off.”
Ndidi and May are both presidents of university societies that aim to improve visibility of female doctors and help prepare female medical students to succeed and lead in the medical field. But they’re both keen to showcase role models at all stages of a medic’s career, not just female medics at the top of their game.
Female medics of the future
May joined Vilomi Bhatia, a fifth year medical student and publicity officer for the Athena Swan Student Society at St George’s, University of London to talk about their experiences as medical students and why female medical leadership matters to them.
The MDU’s chief executive, Dr Christine Tomkins, has been at the helm of the UK’s largest and oldest medical defence organisation, following a career in clinical practice as an ophthalmologist. She explains why everyone gains when women have an equal opportunity to succeed.
According to Ndidi, “the aim [of the Women in Medicine society at KCL] is that any aspiring young medic can look at these doctors and find one that looks like them. It’s about changing attitudes to women in the medical field. We’ve got a changing workforce demographic so that’s why we want to celebrate that.”
Reflecting the feeling, May says, “At Athena SWAN student society at St Georges, we’ve definitely seen a shift in the interest in what our members want to see from the society. There are the people at the very top who are the absolute trailblazers in their field, but we want to dispel this stereotype that the only women with these skills are the trailblazers. You need to be exposed to women at all points in their career, so that it’s not an unachievable goal that you can see as a student.”
May goes on to suggest it’s less about the need to be inspired. Now they want to know what they need to succeed: “Our members definitely want to be given the opportunity to obtain the skills they need to succeed. So as much as inspiration is a huge part of what we do, we need to start thinking how we encourage the character traits that encourage women and enable women to reach senior leadership roles at the highest levels of their field.”
Female role models come in all forms
“Female leadership is important because people at the top need to represent the population that they serve,” says May. But role models can be found at all stages of your medical career. Both May and Ndidi agreed the people that have inspired them the most so far were closer to home.
May reflects: “The people who have affected me the most throughout my clinical placement aren’t always the top consultants. It’s the FY1 who taught me how to document in the notes properly, so I learnt a new skill on the ward round, instead of just pushing a computer on wheels and yanking a cubicle curtain. It was the clinical teaching fellow who taught me not to forget to ask that question in this history and now I will never forget to ask that. It’s not just the people who wow you, it’s the people who take an interest.”
And for some, medical students will also be role models for younger students to look up to. “I’m a final year medical student and I’m talking to first and second year students,” says Ndidi. “Just talking to them on a bit of a level, not really very formally but as more of a Q&A, with them asking what I had done through medical school… Even women in medical schools, FY1s and FY2s, can be great leaders.”
As Ndidi concludes, “It’s not just about having leaders right at the top, it’s about seeing women at all stages of their career.”
Interview by Susheila Juggapah.