Fiona Pathiraja: Because we’re worth it

Fiona PathirajaI’ve always thought of myself as a feminist and have never consciously made career decisions based on my gender. However, male medical colleagues often comment that my Jackie O-inspired work wardrobe does not necessarily fit with being a feminist. Some have even suggested that I am “more feminine than the average female doctor.” This raises the interesting question – are femininity and feminism mutually exclusive in medicine?

Although 57% of new medical students are female, it appears that gender is still an issue in the medical world. There are several high profile female medical role models including Margaret Chan (director general of the World Health Organisation), Sally Davies (chief medical officer for England) and Parveen Kumar (president of the Royal Society of Medicine). Despite this, there is significant debate around the “feminisation” of medicine – female doctors are more likely to take career breaks and work part time. Some argue that this has a negative impact on the profession. Traditionally male-dominated specialties such as surgery remain so – worryingly only a paltry 7% of surgical consultants are female.

A female approach to medicine is often considered to be less valid than the traditional male approach and specialties with high proportions of female doctors have their prestige threatened. The dashing male surgeon or the authoritative, grey-haired male physician commands respect and even awe – not so the jaded female registrar or consultant, trying to balance the demands of a career and family.

Even Fiona Godlee, editor of the BMJ, has experienced the effects of the gender issue in medicine. She blogged about taking the decision to stop dyeing her hair after a senior medical colleague introduced her with the throwaway comment, “This is Fiona Godlee. She edits the BMJ. She’s a good girl.” Altering her appearance has allowed her to portray a different, perhaps more serious image. So should young women doctors follow this example and minimise overt signs of femininity in order to become medical leaders?

It has been my experience that women in hospital medicine often adopt a “persona,” in order to succeed and be accepted by their male colleagues. This often involves projecting an image of being uninterested in typical feminine pursuits such as glamorous dressing. It can also be through behavioural change; women act tougher or ruthlessly in order to fit in with the men. Female surgical trainees talk about acting “like one of the boys” by good humouredly sharing sexist banter and joshing in the operating theatre. They feel this is a necessary part of networking towards future success. Interestingly, this type of sexist banter is not tolerated in other sectors, where sexual harassment lawsuits are served regularly.

Feminism and femininity aren’t mutually exclusive, and perhaps through embracing this, young female doctors can realise that they don’t need to fit into the boys’ club to succeed. I take inspiration from women such as Professor Valerie Lund, an internationally renowned ENT surgeon, who also happens to look fabulous in designer heels. Taking an interest in my wardrobe doesn’t mean I am less able to do my job and I won’t be relegating the pearls and twinset just yet.

As L’Oreal would say it’s “Because I’m worth it.”

Fiona Pathiraja is navigating a medical portfolio career. She has worked as a junior doctor, management consultant, entrepreneur and most recently as clinical adviser to the NHS medical director at the Department of Health. Follow her on Twitter @dr_fiona

  • EmmaGeraln

    Be what you want to be, don't let others dictate your persona. Feminism is what a person believes in,
    is about
    a person is. The two things are not even related. Anyone of any gender can be either, both no neither.

  • Scjb78

    @dr_fiona: This is a terrible blog full of naive assumptions. Do you even know what feminisation is?

  • Lisa C

    As a GP who in another incarnation was a surgical registrar, this blog resonates with me. I felt that I had to act more like a man especially while on call. The 'joshing' you talk about started off as fun for me but became I quickly became weary of it as time went on. Once I was well into my 30s with a child, it became less fun to act in this way. I've since left surgery but hope that the culture changes for other young women who are making their way on the long and often arduous journey towards becoming a surgical consultant. Women need to be less backwards about coming forwards about the issues they face during surgical training.

  • Nisa Patel

    I'm completely in shock that Fiona Godlee of all people felt the need to make a drastic decision about her appearance based on a ridiculous/baseless comment by a man! If the editor of the bmj is having to resort to such things , where does this leave normal doctors like me? Why do men (especially older ones) feel that they can just make little comments that are seemingly harmless? “She's a good girl.” Did that man think he was complimenting the editor of the bmj in a sort of way or did he just say it without thinking? I doubt he said this with malice so why say it at all? A very senior consultant once told me that 'men like to have pretty things around them' as justification for him preferring good looking female colleagues on his firm. He said this in all seriousness, in clinic. I empathise with Fiona Godlee as I was too much in shock to say anything that I just nodded! Next time a man makes a comment like that, I'm really tempted to take them straight to HR!! I would never say to a male colleague that I prefer to have men “who look like young oxbridge rowers'” in clinic with me so I don't expect this kind of sexist comment from men. Rant over!

  • Glad you have taken time to read the blog + clearly it has sparked a debate. Best, F

  • Yes, so many female surgeons and those in training have expressed similar thoughts and have said they find it difficult to strike a balance. There is a sense that the old boys club culture is changing though. F

  • Louise Porter

    Really interesting post – the women issue rages beneath the surface in medicine. I don't think it is just a problem in surgery by any means. I have seen and experienced sexism in hospital medicine too. I do think that the NHS can cater for both types of Fionas – the one who refuses to dye her hair to assert authority and the one who wears pearls and twin-set with pride. It just needs a bit more time.