Female doctors are likely to be in a majority within the next three years, and the BMA wants this reflected in its make-up

Women are taking over medicine, if we are to believe everything we hear. Certainly, around 60% of medical students are female and the RCP (Royal College of Physicians of London) predicts that women doctors will be in the majority by 2017.

But if we look at the number of women in leadership positions, we find a different story. Very few medical directors, presidents of medical royal colleges or those on NHS trust boards are female, according to 2009 research by the RCP.

This under-representation at a higher level has been reflected in the BMA, which has seen little change in the number of women members on committees and in elected roles during the past six years.

To address this, the association has launched a range of policies to promote women in leadership.

BMA representative body deputy chair Anthea Mowat (pictured) says: “As a membership organisation, it’s important to show that our committees reflect the diversity of the membership. Having more women on committees will show that the BMA is recognising the talents and skills of its members and celebrating our diversity.”

Conspicuous absence

The BMA carried out a survey of more than 60 council and committee members. The lack of women in elected roles and a shortage of female role models were key concerns for all those contacted.

Dr Mowat, a Lincolnshire associate specialist in anaesthesia and chronic pain, says: “There can be a tendency for people to feel comfortable with people who are similar to themselves, but being aware of this and then encouraging diversity, rather than perpetuating clones of ourselves, is a sign of a healthy and mature organisation.”
Leadership roles are seen to make significant demands on time and resources, for meetings, conferences, speeches, and undertaking research on top of a clinical job.
BMA survey respondents believe women with family responsibilities would find these demands difficult to meet because of the time commitment, travel and childcare issues.
Dr Mowat says: “Many women are put off as they have other responsibilities, such as family commitments, so are concerned about the time that would be involved. Geography also plays a role. There is often a feeling that things are being centralised, whether regionally or nationally, and travelling long distances to attend meetings is off-putting, even for those who are keen.

“My personal experience – of a two-hour drive to an evening regional meeting that lasted two hours, then a two-hour drive home at a time when my children were small – was not appealing.”

Improved arrangements

To combat these problems, the BMA has improved the flexibility of care arrangements for committee members with dependent family.

Arrangements include:

  • The family-friendly fund, created to cover the cost of care for children, teenagers or adult dependants, when members are participating in association activities.
  • An on-site crèche or babysitting service, for approved BMA meetings and BMA branch of practice conferences held at BMA House.
  • Members who prefer to use their regular care provider can get reasonable costs reimbursed. This also applies to external meetings or conferences that require attendance.
  • The BMA will provide facilities or fund care for official lunchtime, evening and afternoon events, such as dinners and lectures, if they are part of an official meeting or conference agenda.

Knowledge is power

Developing talent and increasing self-belief is another way to empower women to take on leadership roles. Members surveyed said a lack of knowledge and communication about the election process could lead to a reluctance to stand.

Dr Mowat says: “While recognising that there is a range of personalities in both genders, some women I have spoken to felt they did not have the confidence to compete against more dominant men in elections and worried that they did not have the experience to undertake the role.

“We need to recognise that committees are more effective
if there is a balance of views and personality types, irrespective
of gender.”  