More than half of female surgeons have experienced discrimination, study claims

More than half of female surgeons have faced or witnessed discrimination in the workplace, according to new research.

A confidential poll found the majority of female surgeons in the UK felt the sector was “male-dominated”, with nearly six-in-ten reporting or witnessing discrimination against women in the workplace.

The research, published in the BMJ on Monday, also found that about a fifth of female surgeons felt there was a “tangible glass ceiling”.

Orthopaedics was seen as the most sexist of all the surgical specialities, the responses showed.

The poll was commissioned by the Association of Surgeons of Great Britain and Ireland (ASGBI) and distributed through its women in surgery Facebook page and Twitter for two weeks in October 2017.

The majority of the ASGBI group was mainly made up of women, with around 70% of its surgeons coming from the UK but it also included doctors from India, Pakistan, USA, Europe and Africa.

Researchers analysed the responses of 81 female surgeons to an online survey about their perceptions and experiences of working in the sector, what obstacles they had faced in their careers, and what they thought would help to overcome these.

It found that 88% of female surgeons felt surgery remained male-dominated, with 59% reporting or witnessing discrimination against women in the workplace.

Despite women making up over half of medical school entrants in the UK, less than a third opt for a career in surgery, researchers said.

The research team found several perceived barriers to a surgical career for women, including poor work-life balance, inflexibility over part-time careers, gender stereotyping, and lack of formal mentorship.

Half the respondents said that motherhood and childcare commitments are the greatest obstacles for women wanting a career in surgery.

While there is support for mums working in surgery, women are “presumed to deskill during maternity leave and are discouraged from working part-time”, researchers said.

With fewer women represented at senior level, this could reinforce the idea that surgery is a male-dominated environment, they added.

Nearly a third of respondents said that sexist language should be challenged, while other suggestions for tackling discrimination included removing the stigma of career breaks for women, more flexible training and career options, and improved understanding of the impact of childcare responsibilities on working life.

The researchers stressed that the study is based on a small online survey and so might not be representative of the female surgical workforce. But they said the poll nevertheless “illuminates the lived realities of female surgeons in the UK today”.

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