The transformation of the medical workforce is changing its gender and its colour. Since the early 1980s the proportion of male consultants has fallen from 90 per cent to 68 per cent and is set to fall further. Only a quarter of today's medical students - tomorrow's doctors - are white men. The difference has been made up by women, whoaccount for 60 per cent of medical students, and ethnic minorities. But men still rule.

"Twenty years ago the old boy network and behind the scenes telephone calls were dominant factors in the selection process, and many women who wanted to reduce their hours to spend time with their children were not regarded as proper doctors," says Isobel Allen, professor of health policy at the Policy Studies Institute.

Today, many in the medical profession "still view women doctors with scepticism despite their increasing numbers". Although things have changed in medicine, the pace has been slower than in the outside world, she says.

The proportion of female consultants has doubled from 12 per cent in 1983, but they still account for only one in four of all consultants. In surgery, only 7 per cent of consultants are female.

Professor Allen says concerns about the changing workforce have been overdone. She cites an interview given to The Independent last year by the president of the Royal College of Physicians, Dame Carol Black, in which she said that medical schools were training too many women and the profession could lose its influence as a result.

Writing in the British Medical Journal, Professor Allen says: "I don't believe that patients value women doctors any less than men." The days when a career in medicine meant losing the right to a normal life for either men or women are rightly gone, she says. "It was not a golden age and will never return."

Newly qualified doctors from ethnic minorities have risen from 2 per cent in 1974 to an estimated 30 per cent this year, compared with 12.8 per cent in the population. In 2002, white men accounted for 43.5 per cent of the population but 26 per cent of medical students.