While more than 50 per cent of medical graduates are female, just 34 per cent of surgical trainees are women, and less than 7 per cent of consultant surgeons are women.
In a report, produced by RCSI’s (Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland) Working Group on Gender Diversity, the lack of access for women to high quality surgical fellowships, working conditions during pregnancy and supports available to those returning to work after absence were identified as the chief barriers to female progress in the profession.
Chair of the Working Group Ms Deborah McNamara, Consultant in General and Colorectal Surgery, Beaumont Hospital, stated: “If surgery is less appealing to women than to men, we need to know why and remove the obstacles”.
Minister for Health, Simon Harris, described Ireland’s current figures as “appalling”, commenting: “we clearly have a huge amount to do in this area”.
The Minister stated: “I want to commend the RCSI for the foresight they’ve shown in bringing together a working group to look at what needs to be done from a training point of view to make sure that women have equal opportunities to contribute as consultant surgeons.
“The HSE will now engage directly with the female work force, in the area of surgery but also in other areas through our online questionnaire, to understand what we need to do as a health service for women during pregnancy, post-pregnancy and that moment of reengagement with the work force after pregnancy”, he added.
Ms McNamara explained that in compiling this report the Working Group considered all the steps of the surgical training pathway, from medical school to working as a surgical trainee and then working into consultant appointment.
She claimed: “There’s definitely an issue around being competitive at an interview, in a public health service it’s important that we compete and that the best people get the jobs. Our role as a college and as a training body is to ensure that people know what’s needed and to ensure that they have the competence and training to deliver on that and also to provide career advice.
She underscored the value of role models in tackling the lack of women in surgery. “Surgery is a demanding profession no matter who is doing it but most professions are demanding and personal sacrifice and long hours are common for many different lines of work, not just surgery.
“I suppose for our female medical students, if they don’t see female surgical academics and they don’t see consultant surgeons who are women when they enter hospitals they would probably find it hard to see themselves successfully navigating a career as a surgeon.
“Definitely role models, and mentorship from these role models, is important because it’s challenging to combine family life with a busy professional care, particularly in the case of surgery where there is a lot of night work and emergency duty.
“The college has made a significant investment in starting an office for equality and diversity, so we’re committed to this not just for postgraduate surgical training but also across the board, and particularly in our medical school.
“I think our role models can be men and women, I just don’t accept that we can only learn from other women. I think we can learn from everyone and that we should try to get better at that, maybe”.
Dr Avril Hutch spoke of the benefits of an increased number of female surgeons. “The literature shows that female doctors interact differently with patients and, while there aren’t very specific numbers as this was a very recent finding, different skills are demonstrated by male and female trainees.
“This report is an effort to try and provide the most holistic surgical trainee at the end of the process, and both male and female trainees have something to offer as a surgeon”.
Regarding the cost of implementation, Dr Hutch explained that they are working closely with their Department of Surgical Affairs, which has its own budget, and intend to engage with the HSE about securing funding.
Speaking before the launch, RCSI President, Professor John Hyland said: “RCSI is a powerful voice in setting standards and influencing surgical culture in Ireland and it must take the lead and show results from this initiative”.