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17 Jan 2017

By Erika Strazdins and Jesse A Ende, Medicine VI, University of New South Wales

The Australian medical profession has made great strides towards gender equity, and from a once male dominated profession we are now seeing promising change at many levels.

Female medical graduates have equalled or exceeded their male counterparts since the turn of the century. Reflecting this, women are making up a greater proportion of the medical workforce, with a 40 per cent representation among doctors in 2015.

The next step for the Australian medical profession is to tackle the under-representation of women in leadership positions.

Women make up the minority of leaders across a broad range of areas in medicine. In education, only 29 per cent of deans are female; in academia 32 per cent of lead authors are women and women comprise a small proportion of speakers across specialty annual scientific meetings; of AMA state and territory presidents only 22 per cent are female; and a third of specialist positions were filled by women in 2011.

Leadership is a quality which is entwined throughout our medical practice, with doctors expected to lead medical teams, educate and research, and in so doing contribute to the profession.

Leadership, like medical practice, begins in medical schools. We created a snapshot of medical student society leadership in 2016. Twenty Australian medical student societies were analysed to determine gender representation in their executive committees in the president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer positions.

It was encouraging that almost 50 per cent of these roles are filled by female medical students, with some representation across all of the individual roles (president 37 per cent female, vice president 50 per cent, secretary 80 per cent, treasurer 37 per cent), as illustrated in Figure 1. However, while almost half of all leadership positions were filled by women, it is interesting to note that these positions were still skewed towards ‘traditional’ female roles of being an ‘assistant’ to their male counterparts, such as secretary (80 per cent) or vice president (50 per cent). Male medical students still seem to occupy the ultimate leadership role as the president or control the all-important finances as the treasurer.

It is clear that a discrepancy exists between current leadership by students in medical school executive positions and by doctors in the medical profession. There are a number of current leaders in medicine in Australia who believe this is due to factors such as women not having been in the profession long enough to reach leadership positions, not seeking such positions because of family or other commitments, or that they do not possess inherent leadership characteristics.

Dr Danika Thiemt, immediate-past Chair of the AMA Council of Doctors in Training, argues against this latter point, believing that all doctors possess the skills to become a leader.

We too believe that women possess inherent leadership characteristics, with our findings showing that female medical students are interested in, and actively involved in, leadership at their universities. The high proportion of female medical student leaders is strongly suggestive that women do in fact possess the inherent qualities and ambition necessary of a leader.

Additionally, these ambitious female medical students have been encouraged by the more recent cultural shift in attitudes towards women in leadership. In particular, many Australian medical schools have formalised their support for women’s equity through designated representative roles and societies, as well as specific programs and events.

Admittedly, times have changed since the beginning of medical practice; now there are more women in medicine, with females comprising 55 per cent of medical graduates, and they have also been empowered to take on leadership roles. This makes it difficult to compare these data to the present day medical leadership, which is a product of the past 20 years of cultural and professional influences. Despite this, these trends at the university level are an encouraging sign for gender equity in future leadership in the medical profession in Australia.

We must acknowledge the important challenge of nurturing the passions and ambitions of these medical students as they move into the professional workforce. It will be interesting to compare current statistics regarding the gender balance in leadership positions to those in 20 years time, with the hope that today’s leaders in university do in fact become tomorrow’s leaders in the profession.


Figure 1. Gender representation in Australian student medical societies amongst executive positions, 2016.

Published: 17 Jan 2017