Conference Coverage

Culture change needed to improve gender inequalities in medicine



Women’s credentials and capabilities were often felt to be less respected by male colleagues, and there was talk of being met with microaggressions in the workplace, as in one example given by Nana Odom, MSc, a clinical engineer at the Royal United Hospital Bath (England). She was told “you’re not an engineer, because I have not got a set of screwdrivers and sit at a computer and program.” Such comments can deeply affect a person, Dr. Odom said. “Sometimes I feel that if I don’t go into the workshop and open up a bit of kit that I am not an engineer, but it’s so unconscious, it carries on with you.” These types of stories need to be told so then they can be properly addressed when they do happen, she said.

Dr. F. Gigi Osler. Head of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at St. Boniface Hospital in Winnipeg.

Dr. F. Gigi Osler

Female representation is so important, said F. Gigi Osler, MD, head of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at St. Boniface Hospital in Winnipeg. Dr. Osler is the 2018-2019 president of the Canadian Medical Association, the eighth woman to hold this prestigious position in the organization’s 151 years of operation. She also happens to be the first female surgeon and the first woman of color in the role. “When I stepped into the presidency last August, I thought very long and very hard about how I was going to use my voice and this platform,” Dr. Osler said. “It became very clear to me after I started how important representation was. I can’t tell you how many women, young women, and women of color...have come up to me to say, ‘I’m so excited to have you in this position. I’ve never seen someone who looks like me in that type of leadership position,’ ” she observed.

“As leaders, I think we can advocate for structures and processes,” Dr. Osler added, “I think we set the culture.” Leaders have the responsibility for creating and nurturing and fostering a professional, respectful, and inclusive environment, she said.

“We need more strong leaders, we need more diversity in leadership.” Dr. Osler was keen to point out that greater diversity does not mean only women, but other groups as well. “Look around the room. Who is not here? How can I make it easier for them to get here?”

Another strong female role model at the event was Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer for England, a hematologist by training. Not only is she the first female in that role, she will also become the first female Master of Trinity College Cambridge starting in October 2019, a role dominated by men for more than 500 years.

All people, women and men, need to be given fair opportunity, Dame Sally said. Addressing structural issues can help, she said. “We need role models, mentors, and champions,” she said, noting that there were differences between the three. “Mentors give you advice, they get to know you, and they help you think through your issue. Champions may not have time for that, but they know you are good,” and they are putting you forward for opportunities.

“If the system isn’t right, or we are treated badly, we need to call it out,” Dame Sally said. “I do think that we often let things pass that we shouldn’t.” A classic situation is where a woman may suggest something at a meeting and it is ignored, but when a man says the same thing it is taken on board. That kind of behavior needs to stop and be addressed when it happens, by everyone at the table, she said.

Dr. Hawkes observed in her summing up of the day: “Throughout the history of health, change comes about not just through action at the top, but also from action from the bottom up.” She added: “The question is how do we make that change happen?” That’s where the next phase of research needs to take place, she suggested, “we need to actually see, in a very evidence-informed way, what actually works to make and sustain change.”

No financial disclosures were reported by any of the speakers quoted.

SOURCE: Lancet. 2019;393:493–610, e6-e28

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