Salary and the prestige attached to the job are greater attractions for male medical students considering a career in surgery than for women, whose choices are significantly more influenced by part-time work, parental leave and working hours.
This finding, contained in a new study looking at gender diversity in surgery “is an important message for the HSE,” according to Professor Peter Gillen, who co-authored the research.
Currently, the consultant contract “tends to be one size fits all”, Prof Gillen said, but the research highlights an obvious need for greater flexibility in the workplace.
Exactly 10% more females, compared with males, feel they would be more likely to pursue a career in surgery if part-time training was an option
The impact of the lack of flexibility in the workplace was borne out by the drop-off in female representation at consultant level - while females account for 60% of the medical student population, just 10% of surgeons in Ireland are women. This compares to 17% in Malaysia, “where cultural preferences for female consultants in breast and obstetric specialties may influence recruitment”, the research says.
The lack of female role models in surgery in Ireland is identified as a significant deterrent to women pursuing a surgical career, echoing the “If she can’t see it, she can’t be it”, Women in Sport campaign.
The research 'Are we reaping what we sow?' published in the Postgraduate Medical Journal, and involving medical students at three RCSI campuses, including Dublin and two in Malaysia, says female role-modelling within surgery “is vital on the quest to achieve gender parity within the surgical specialties”.
The research pinpoints other challenges, including a greater number of female students than male feeling intimidated in a surgical training environment. Men are more likely to report feeling confident.
Thirteen percent more females feel the perceived competitive nature of gaining a surgical training position would make them less likely to pursue it.
Prof Gillen, Associate Professor of Surgery at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI), said psychology studies have shown that female students “tend to underestimate their own ability, and by virtue of being female, feel a bit more intimidated about what they can do”.
While the sexes have similar levels of interest in pursuing a surgical career, their enthusiasm dwindles as they move through medical school and both genders report feeling intimidated “or ignored” during surgical placements, although this is heightened among females.
Prof Gillen said the research findings “add further urgency to the need to address factors which make surgery less appealing to female medical graduates”
Professor Deborah McNamara, RCSI Working Group on Gender Diversity lead, said RCSI Dublin has established a student chapter affiliated with the Association of Women Surgeons “to increase the access of RCSI medical students to female surgical mentors”.
The research says with increasing numbers of female medical students graduating worldwide, "there has never been a more compelling reason to address gender diversity issues in surgery which has traditionally been a male-dominated profession with female participation limited at best".