Gender issues

Promoting equity for women in cardiology in the UK

A major drive to attract more women into cardiology has been unveiled by the British Cardiovascular Society (BCS). The aim is to create a national network of mentors and role models for women, deliver resources and support, end male dominance, and eradicate negative and sexist comments directed at women within the specialty. The issue was discussed in a powerful session, “Women in Cardiology – Building a Healthy Culture”, at the BCS online congress.

Report: Mark Nicholls

portrait of rebecca dobson
Dr Rebecca Dobson

The session heard that female medical students are discouraged from entering cardiology because of comments from consultants and fellow trainees as well as fears that their male counterparts “would not take them seriously”. The BCS Women in Cardiology lead, Dr Rebecca Dobson, pointed to the new initiatives while consultant cardiologist Derek Harrington and his daughter Emma – a medical student herself – discussed their experiences.

Dr Dobson, a consultant cardiologist at Liverpool Heart and Chest Hospital, highlighted reasons for the underrepresentation of women in cardiology including a lack of female role models and mentors, but also a lack of resources for women who may have particular needs during pregnancy, maternity leave, or when returning to work after a period of absence. She noted that while there have been various initiatives over the years, there has been little progress and that sexual harassment and widespread negative attitudes and behaviour remain at unacceptable levels in UK cardiology.

Figures suggest that the percentage of women in cardiology has increased to 28% trainees and 13% consultants (from 16.8% and 7.4%, respectively) but remains amongst the lowest when compared to other medical specialties in the UK. Dr Dobson said that this has meant the specialty is not tapping into the available talent pool but also warned that if real change is to be achieved, men also need to be part of the conversation.

New momentum

iconic

Image source: Shutterstock/Gal Amar

With a new momentum, the BCS is launching initiatives that endeavour to make a difference for woman in cardiology, though Dr Dobson acknowledged this aim to be “a tall order”. Those initiatives include 

  • engaging with students and junior doctors at an early stage by developing initiatives to attract women into cardiology; 
  • make better information available; and 
  • support women in cardiology by championing changes in working practice that promote equity.

“We want to facilitate the creation of a community of female cardiology trainees and consultants across the UK,” she said. “In addition, the BCS is creating a dedicated ‘Women in Cardiology Chapter’ devoted to dealing with issues that are of concern to its members,” she said. “We are keen to enable a professional network for women in cardiology at a regional level to advocate for professional needs and development for women in the specialty.” An executive committee formed from BCS and other affiliated groups will oversee these initiatives.

Other developments will see online resources expanded, mentorship and leadership training for women within the specialty made available and a working group established to offer support for women working in cardiology women who are pregnant or considering starting a family. “BCS is firmly committed to improving gender inequity within our specialty,” Dobson concluded.

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A male-dominated environment

Earlier, BSC council member Dr Harrington and his daughter Emma, who has just completed her medical studies, spoke about their experiences in this regard. While at medical school, she first experienced the workplace environment dominated by “white, middle-aged men”, where people never asked questions about her, but made “huge assumptions based on her gender alone”. She reported on how this impacted her career choices and she indicated that cardiology – a male-dominated specialty – was not a preferred career choice. Main reasons were teaching styles, the lack of relevant role models and the feeling that she “would not be taken seriously by male counterparts”. “I am not saying that cardiology is causing the problem, but it appears to be exaggerating it and it is therefore so important that the specialty leads the way in making the change,” she said.

To drive this change, Emma would like to see male cardiologists take up opportunities to mentor and teach female students; show them what they love about the specialty; and make women welcome within it. “They should also acknowledge that there is huge progress to be made; encourage women to speak about their experience and; most importantly, take them seriously and make change when they do,” she said.

A “radical approach” is needed

If you have a specialty dominated by men, then the professional society will be dominated by men

Derek Harrington

Dr Harrington conceded he had not fully considered the gender issue throughout his career, until it was raised at a BCS council meeting, and upon learning about his daughter’s experience. He believes the BCS must take a “radical approach” to look at its own gender balance and address the issues raised. “If you have a specialty dominated by men, then the professional society will be dominated by men,” he said. “The majority of committee members are men, so we need to actively address that imbalance.”

The session was chaired by BCS President Simon Ray and immediate-past President Dr Sarah Clarke, who have taken a strong interest in the subject. Dr Clarke remarked that she was particularly keen to lose the title of ‘the only female president in the society’s history’, inferring she would like to see another woman in the post before long. The session also heard from American College of Cardiology President Dr Dipti Itchhaporia, who underlined the importance of building a diverse team with different viewpoints. She said that other factors to consider were educating and empowering that team, creating a culture of wellness within it, and leading by example in terms of wellness.


Profile:

Dr Rebecca Dobson is a Consultant Cardiologist with a Special Interest in Imaging and Cardio-Oncology at Liverpool Heart and Chest Hospital and BCS council member for Women in Cardiology. Her clinical interests include chemotherapy-induced left ventricular systolic dysfunction, cardiac disease in the cancer patient, and heart valve disease. Her research focuses on cardio-oncology and carcinoid heart disease.

15.07.2021

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