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27 June 2013
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Blimmin' women and the NHS

The NHS has had more reform since its inception in 1948 than I’ve had hot dinners. I am quite sure that in the course of my career, I will become as frustrated and cynical as some of today’s consultants about yet another restructuring. 

And yet, I think a key factor that has been, and will continue to be, an important player in the evolution to the NHS, is I.

When I say ‘I’, I really mean ‘us’. Women.

Way before the conception of the NHS, in 1879 the Association of Registered Medical Women was founded with nine whole members.  This blossomed to 190 members when the Medical Women’s Federation was founded in 1916.(1) Fast-forward to 2017 and the majority of doctors will be female.(2) Ladies, we’re a big deal.

And yet, the NHS hasn’t quite known how to respond yet, both in terms of attitude and infrastructure.

There’s still a lot of border-banter-borderline-sexism that many female students and junior doctors have to traverse. Comments about how we look, or indeed any aspect of our gender that is commented upon inappropriately by our colleagues, is discrimination and cannot be accepted.  Female doctors should feel comfortable about raising concerns with either the person responsible, or a supervisor/senior colleague if necessary.

Should women want to start a family, this shouldn’t be seen as a ticking time bomb.  Hospital trusts should organize the rota with less than full time working (LFTW) as an unremarkable component for men or women, and female doctors should feel confident that their training, career choices and employability won’t be affected in a way that current evidence suggests.(3) It seems remarkable that in a medical era where people take time out for all sorts of reasons (travel, alternative training, sabbatical etc) that women remain the most disadvantaged when it comes to returning to work.

The NHS is just not geared up for a female-filled NHS, and it’s all too easy for politicians and the media to point the finger at us, unfortunate, ovary-burdened women. I’ll give Anne McIntosh MP and Health Minister Anna Soubry the benefit of the doubt with regards to their comments about the ‘unintended consequences’ of all these female doctors, but the backlash shows what a delicate issue this is.  The point remains that the majority of GPs are women, the majority of consultants are men and when it comes to medical leaders, you’d be hard pressed to find much oestrogen in sight.(4) This simply isn’t sustainable without some major changes in attitude and infrastructure.

So it is with trepidation that I embark, as a twenty-something-year-old junior doctor, on a career that may be defined by more than the content of my brain. My own feelings on this? I have never perceived myself as a raging feminist. If I am lucky enough to have children, I want to do my duty both as a mother and as a doctor. I don’t see why this has to be a big deal. Flexible training and working should be the norm, and integrated into NHS working for men and women alike. If you want the best people leading departments, hospitals, colleges and CCGs, that means removing obstacles and allowed the best candidates to fulfill their potential and shine, irrespective of gender.

In the mean time, I’m just going to hang in there, develop as a clinician and a leader, and hopefully keep any cynicism at bay. Because the biggest fear I have is that we are too burnt out and skeptical to stay in the game and finish it.


1)   Medical Womens Federation: Our History . Accessed 26/6/13

2)   Women and Medicine: the future. 2009. Royal College of Physicians report. Accessed 26/6/13

3)   Jaques H. Quarter of female medical academics struggle to return to work after a career break. BMJ Careers, Feb 2013

4)   Newman P. Releasing Potential: Women doctors
and clinical leadership, NHS Midlands and East, Feb 2012

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About the author

Karin Purshouse's picture

Karin Purshouse

An academic foundation doctor in Oxford, Karin Purshouse was formerly chair of the BMA's Medical Students Committee. She now sits on the Equality and Diversity Committee at the BMA, as well as the Junior Doctors Conference Agenda Committee 2013-14. Clinically, her main interests lie in oncology, and she is also a passionate advocate of women in medical leadership.  She writes a blog at:

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