Female doctors set to outnumber male colleagues by 2017

Experts claim gender shift could lead to safer practice, but gap in wages remains

Female doctors who have laid siege to the male bastion of the medical profession are poised to overtake their male counterparts in what a medical journal describes as a "giant leap for womankind". Women have outnumbered men in medical schools for a decade and are set to become a majority of the medical workforce by 2017. They already dominate in people-friendly areas such as general practice, paediatrics and palliative care, while still struggling in the chauvinistic disciplines of cardiology and surgery.

But the progressive feminisation of medicine carries dangers, experts warn. There is a still a gender pay gap and a reluctance by women to put in the time and effort needed to attain the most senior posts and maintain medicine's influence in the corridors of power

Maham Khan, from Imperial College, London, writing in the student edition of British Medical Journal, says more women doctors could lead to safer practice. Women are less likely to be hauled before the General Medical Council on disciplinary charges or investigated for failures in performance. Over eight years 490 male doctors were banned from seeing patients following performance reviews by the National Clinical Assessment Service, compared with 79 women.

Problems remain, however. Women are under-represented at the top of the profession, according to Professor Jane Dacre, medical school director of University College London, because they are "not investing in the time and effort it takes to get the top jobs".

Parveen Kumar, president of the Royal Society of Medicine, told the BMJ: "Women don't like to be seen as putting themselves forward."

In 2004, Dame Carol Black, then president of the Royal College of Physicians, triggered a debate about the influence of women in an interview with The Independent in which she warned that the growing numbers could reduce the influence of the medical profession at the highest level. This was not about women's capacity to perform, but about their willingness to devote the time and effort, beyond their medical responsibilities, to furthering the interests of the profession.

Men were happy to give up their evenings, sit on committees and eat dinners for a chance to walk the corridors of power. It was not clear, Lady Black suggested, whether women would have the same appetite for networking.

A report by the Royal College of Physicians warned in 2009 that the gender balance of the profession was changing so fast it threatened the care of patients. Women were more likely to work part time and to break their careers to have families, and competition for less female-friendly disciplines such as surgery would be reduced.

Despite the challenges, medicine is ahead of other professions in terms of gender equality, Maham Khan writes. Women will take 55 years to reach equality with men amongst senior judges and 73 years amongst directors of FTSE 100 companies.

"In terms of numbers, female doctors have made giant leaps," she says.

Study's call to bridge gender health divide

Men fare better than women in almost all areas of life – except when it comes to their health. They are twice as likely as women to die before 65.

Now a doctors' study is calling for policies to tackle problems caused by men's macho attitude to health – rejecting advice and not seeing GPs soon enough.

Alan White, professor of men's health at Leeds Metropolitan University – who led the study published in the British Medical Journal – said intervention should start in schools to give boys "skills to make healthier decisions throughout their lives".

Bosses should collaborate with unions to promote men's health in the workplace, while pubs, clubs and sports centres should also be targeted, the study urges.

Jeremy Laurance

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