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More than half of female surgeons have experienced workplace discrimination

More than half of female surgeons have faced or witnessed discrimination in the workplace, a survey suggests.

Orthopaedics was seen as the most sexist of all the surgical specialties, the responses show.

Despite women making up over half of medical school entrants in the UK, less than a third opt for a career in surgery, which is widely acknowledged to be a male-dominated environment.

But few studies have looked at the way in which women feel their male surgical colleagues perceive them.

Researchers analysed the responses of 81 female surgeons to an online survey (42% response rate) about their perceptions and experiences of working in the field; what obstacles they had faced in their careers; and what they thought would help to overcome these.

Analysis of the responses identified several perceived barriers to a surgical career for women: poor work-life balance; inflexibility over part-time careers; gender stereotyping; and lack of formal mentorship.

Most respondents (88%) felt that surgery remains male-dominated, with nearly six out of 10 (59%) reporting or witnessing discrimination against women in the workplace.

And around one in five (22%) felt that there was a “tangible glass ceiling,” with an overriding feeling that the working culture is geared to men.

Orthopaedics was seen as the most sexist of the surgical specialties (53%), followed by cardiothoracic (16%) and general surgery (13%).

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

There is existing support for mothers working in surgery, but women are “presumed to deskill during maternity leave and are discouraged from working part time,” say the researchers.

Nearly a third (30%) of respondents said that sexist language should be challenged. Other suggestions for tackling discrimination included more female role models and mentors; de-stigmatisation of career breaks for women; flexible training/career options; better work-life balance; and improved understanding of the impact of childcare responsibilities on working life.

The study is based on a small online survey, so might not be representative of the female surgical workforce, the authors point out. But the poll nevertheless “illuminates the lived realities of female surgeons in the UK today,” they suggest.

And with around 6 in 10 women reporting experience of discrimination, the responses suggest “an ancient culture pervading our society since the 1800s, at the time of the first female surgeon in the UK, Elizabeth Garrett,” they write in BMJ Open.

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