Women in Ireland's medical sector ‘are still facing discrimination’

Women in Ireland's medical sector ‘are still facing discrimination’

Dr. Sarah Fitzgibbon outside the Medigroup premises, Cathedral Road, Cork. Picture Denis Minihane

A CORK GP has said women working in the medical sector still face discrimination.

Dr Sarah Fitzgibbon, a Northside Cork GP, set up an organisation called WiMIN (Women in Medicine in Ireland Network). The aim of the organisation is for female doctors and trainees to network and discuss any issues they are facing.

“I started the organisation in December 2017. I became aware of a similar UK organisation, which was 100 years old. Obviously that was set up when there were very few female doctors. I wondered if there was a need for something similar in Ireland. I sent out a Tweet to see if there was an appetite for it.”

Dr Fitzgibbon was overwhelmed by the response. “Consultants, GPs, doctors in training all responded. WiMIN is to share our experiences, and to encourage and support each other. There are more women than men working in medicine now, over half of the medical workforce are women.

“An issue arises when we look at senior positions. There are some areas like cardiology and surgery where only 10-14% of consultants are women. These areas are considered prestigious and are usually better resourced.

“The specialties which are predominantly female, such as general practice, psychiatry, palliative care, and public health, have less prestige attached to them. The earning potential in these areas is lower, and they are under-resourced. This is not necessarily a coincidence.”

Dr Fitzgibbon says discrimination in the workplace is still an issue. “There was a survey with junior doctors, and the results showed female doctors were far more likely to experience sexual harassment, discrimination, and physical harm while working. Female doctors are also more likely to have a negative experience in their workplace. Bullying and being put under pressure by superiors were all reported.

“While male doctors can also experience these issues, women are affected in a higher proportion and in a gendered way. Women are also often discouraged from taking on certain roles, for example, a young female doctor may want to specialise in surgery. Women are often asked how they would ‘manage’ in surgery, their strength is questioned, and having children is seen as ‘interrupting’ their career.

“There is a very small number of flexible training post in medicine, most are over 40 hours a week, which is not feasible when you are looking after a family. Things like job-sharing, or spreading out training over a longer period, can really help.”

The safety of pregnant doctors is also a key concern. “Women in medicine have to inform their superiors of their pregnancy far earlier than they might like, due to safety issues. One example would be being in close proximity to x-rays, which can potentially harm the pregnancy.

“Studies have shown female doctors have worse pregnancy outcomes when compared to their non-doctor counterparts. It’s a combination of stress, exposure to illness, long hours, inability to take breaks, and the workplace culture of continuing to work despite feeling unwell.”

The smaller hospitals also have greater gender disparities. “There are far fewer female consultants in smaller hospitals. In tertiary hospitals like CUH, there is a much better balance.”

WiMIN is having a networking event in SoHo in Cork on Friday, October 4 at 7.30pm. GPs and Consultants tickets are €20, and trainee and student tickets are free.

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