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