Medical professionals are overestimating women’s representation in many medical specialties and this makes male doctors unwilling to support gender-based initiatives, a study has found.
Publishing their results in BMJ Open, a team of UK and Australian researchers have warned that the medical professionals overestimating progress in gender equality “are at highest risk of undermining it”.
The team from Exeter University and the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership, ANU, Canberra, undertook a cross-sectional study involving 425 consultants/GPs and trainees/junior doctors in the medical field (47% women), who were asked to complete a brief survey online which questioned participants on what proportion of different roles and specialities they thought were represented by women.
Under- or over-estimation of the true proportions were then determined by subtracting from the responses the actual number of women in these roles.
Support for gender equality initiatives was gauged by asking participants to decide whether such activities were ‘necessary’, ‘fair’, ‘excessive’/‘over the top’ or whether they put men at a disadvantage on a scale of 1–7 (where 1 represents strong disagreement and 7 strong agreement).
Results showed that both women and men tended to overestimate the true level of female representation in various medical roles and disciplines, for example, estimating the proportion of female consultants in medicine to be 43% versus the true figure of 37%, and 25% in surgery compared to the real number of 14%.
Respondents also overestimated female representation in surgical trainees (37.5% vs 33%, respectively) and medical school graduates (60% vs 55%), but underestimated the proportion of females training to be a GP (63.5% vs 69%).
Interestingly, the researchers found that while in female respondents “there was no systematic difference” in their degree of support for gender-based initiatives, “male respondents’ tendency to overestimate the proportion of women in medicine predicted lower support for gender-based initiatives”.
The researchers also examined whether respondents subscribed to a gender stereotypical belief in men’s superiority in the medical profession, “a belief that implies women should not be afforded equality in the profession and thus should predict lower willingness to support gender equality initiatives”.
The results showed that those who more strongly supported this belief had less support for gender equality initiatives. However, even taking this into account, support for such initiatives among the men was still significantly linked with a tendency to overestimate female representation in medicine, the authors noted.
While the study was observational in nature and does have its limitations, the authors concluded that the findings highlight “an insidious consequence” that can arise as women’s representation grows within a given medical field.
“It seems to prompt some to misperceive and overstate the actual degree of change, and following from this, particularly for men, mistakenly infer that gender equality initiatives in the field are no longer worth supporting,” they said.
“This ultimately hinders efforts to promote true equality, whether it be promoting women’s representation in areas of the field where they are still under-represented or combating issues of gender bias that exist independent of women’s numerical representation.”