A survey of 425 UK medical professionals published in BMJ Open has found widespread overestimation of women’s representation in medical fields.
Alarmingly, male respondents who overestimated women’s representation also showed significantly lower support for initiatives to support women in medicine.
While more than half (53%) of medical trainees in the UK are female, differential representation of men and women in many fields of medicine is still widespread.
For example, the UK has more female than male GPs, but few women training or working in the surgical field. Another study also published this week in BMJ Open estimated that achieving gender parity for some surgical specialties in the UK will take another 60 years.
The survey provides insight into unforeseen roadblocks to gender equity that can pop up even in professions that are increasing women’s representation.
“We are interested in investigating whether when people’s perceptions of increasing parity might actually have some unintended negative effects,” explains Michelle Ryan, a co-author on the new study and Director of the ANU Global Institute for Women’s Leadership.
Both men and women who responded to the survey tended to overestimate women’s representation across several medical fields. For example, respondents estimated that about 25% of surgical consultants were women – substantially higher than the true figure of 14%.
Respondents also substantially overestimated the representation of women among surgical trainees – estimated at 37% compared to a true value of 33% – and among medical consultants – estimated at 43% compared to the actual value of 37%.
But male respondents who overestimated women’s representation were also less likely to support initiatives designed to promote gender equality in the medical profession. This effect was not observed among women respondents.
“Unfortunately, these findings were expected,” says Ryan.
“Our previous research in the veterinary profession demonstrated that those who thought that gender equality had been achieved in the profession were the very people who are more likely to discriminate against women.”
The findings suggest that increases in women’s representation, even where they stop short of gender parity, can perversely create an impression that gender equity initiatives are no longer necessary.
“These misperceptions can have insidious consequences, potentially undermining or even reversing the true progress made toward gender equality,” says Christopher Begeny, a researcher at the University of Exeter and the paper’s first author.
Ryan says the findings are very much relevant to Australia as well as the UK.
“Although women are well-represented in medical schools, they are still under-represented in leadership roles in medicine,” she says.
In future, the researchers would like to focus on methods to tackle the effects that they identified in the study – for example, by better communicating ongoing inequities and anticipating potential backlash once women’s representation begins to increase.
“The study highlights that just looking at the numbers of women within a profession doesn’t tell us all we need to know about gender equality that profession,” Ryan says.
“Numbers and representation is important – but we also need to look at women’s experiences, opportunities, and how they are valued.”
Matilda is a science writer at Cosmos. She holds a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Science (Honours) from the University of Adelaide.
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