A fair point about women's progress in the professions

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The Independent Online

The increasing number of women entering medicine and other professions is hailed as proof of how many more opportunities there are now for women in Britain and how successfully women have seized them. The so-called "feminisation" of the professions is embraced almost universally as "a good thing" - which it is - not just for women, but for the professions themselves. In medicine, it is credited with bringing a more "caring" style to surgeries, as well as permitting more women to choose a female GP.

So the observations of Professor Carol Black, as reported in this newspaper today, will raise eyebrows. Prof Black, who heads the Royal College of Physicians, argues that the "feminisation" of medicine also has a downside. The greater number of women becoming doctors, she says, risks diminishing the status of medicine and its political clout. This, she says, has happened in teaching.

Some will say that Prof Black is plain wrong. Others may dismiss her views as peculiar to a generation of women pioneers who supposedly resent the relative ease with which other women have followed through the doors they forced open. This would be disgraceful: she is not trying to turn back any clocks.

The fact is, however, that only a woman, and a woman of Prof Black's standing, could even broach this subject. And she deserves to be heard.

The growing numbers of women in medicine are choosing general practice or specialising in the less prestigious areas. They cannot, or choose not to, devote their time to the study and politicking required to enter the profession's upper ranks. As the complexion of the profession changes, as it is "feminised", the tendency is for average pay and political influence to decline.

That this should happen, of course, says far more about the entrenched attitudes of those - mostly men - who hold the real power and the purse-strings than it does about the merits or otherwise of "feminisation". As Prof Black argues, the conditions have to be created for women as well as men to climb the career ladder. This is the next frontier.