Leader: Can there really be too many female doctors?

April 12, 2002

It is less than 150 years since Elizabeth Garrett Anderson became the first woman to qualify as a doctor in Britain, against the massed opposition of a white, male profession. It is only 40 years since quotas for women were dropped for medical school admissions and less than 30 since statutory maternity leave was introduced. Now the medical profession's leaders are bewailing the flight of men in general and white men in particular as the proportion of women in medical schools climbs to what they regard as unmanageable heights (page 4).

But by focusing on the wrong issue, leaders in the medical profession are making themselves look absurd. When medical schools restricted their intake of women, wastage was a problem. Working conditions and male attitudes were such that women who became mothers had little alternative but to drop out, at least for a time. With stiff competition for general practices, a long-hours culture and a hierarchical promotion ladder in hospital medicine, re-entry was difficult. Unsurprisingly, women who dropped out did not always come back. But the world has changed. Now it is not just women who want to spend time with their children. Everyone cares about their work-life balance.

What medicine's honchos need to ask themselves, and potential students, is how the medical profession might be better organised to provide satisfying careers for everyone. The message they should take from the flight of well-qualified, middle-class men is that their profession is losing its attractiveness. They need to find out why.

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