Balance For Better? We’re Still Striving for Gender Equality in Science
Written by Lisa Webber, Consultant gynaecologist and subspecialist in reproductive medicine.

I went to medical school in 1985 – the first year that the number of girls entering medicine equalled that of the boys nationally. That figure didn’t particularly impress me at the time: I had been to a girls’ grammar school, Bournemouth School for Girls, and I went to a girls’ college at Oxford, Somerville (now mixed – I was not a supporter of this change at the time). So I had had a fairly sheltered upbringing with respect to gender-balance until I graduated and started the clinical part of my training. That was the point I became aware some people did not consider men and women to be equal – and what shocked me the most was that some of those people were women and some (both men and women) were my peers! I can still feel my reaction the first time I witnessed male students being treated differently to myself and the other female students. At first I found it amusing (“oh, this must be what sexism is!”) but that quickly changed to irritation and I remember thinking to myself that I simply wasn’t going to play by those rules.

When I entered my chosen specialty of obstetrics and gynaecology (O&G), it was one of the bottom 10 specialities for the number of women. The gender gap in O&G has now swung the opposite way, and, unbelievable though it would have seemed to me at the beginning of my career, this has brought my specialty a different set of issues as female obstetrician gynaecologists are more likely to take career breaks or leave the speciality compared to their male colleagues. Our Royal College is doing what it can to promote retention of our valuable human resources, thankfully with some success.

I specialise in an area of gynaecology called reproductive medicine: 60-70% of my time is spent helping women and couples with fertility problems. The rest of my time is devoted to non-fertility issues related to ovarian function: for example, those of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), which is the commonest endocrine disorder in women of reproductive age. This was the subject of my PhD, which I undertook at Imperial College London. Women with polycystic ovaries have an increased number of eggs and my research in this area paradoxically led to my interest in a condition associated with a reduced number of eggs, called premature ovarian insufficiency. This condition affects 1% of women and is associated with infertility, osteoporosis and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Although I am not in an academic post, (I am an NHS consultant), I do my best to participate in and facilitate research, such as that funded by Genesis Research Trust, whenever I can. This has led to publications in journals such as The Lancet and New England Journal of Medicine. Genesis is uniquely placed to support, encourage and grow research and researchers, enabling progress to be made in understanding reproduction and developing new therapies.

But in my area of medicine I see the raw side of the struggle that both men and women face dealing with the pressures of modern life and the expectations that society places on us all. Nowhere is this more acute than when a woman or a man is facing a challenge to starting or increasing their family. Back in 1985 I might have thought that this struggle was over, that we were indeed all equal with each other, that gender and wealth no longer dictated opportunity. The mantra was you can do it all. And we have made massive strides: but how telling that we are still pushing for that gender balance. Perhaps the difference now is that we are better at celebrating our differences and recognising that we all bring our own sets of skills, that a balance is better for all.

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