Women in Surgery in England

Women in Surgery in England – looking back, moving forward

The number of women in surgery in England is growing, but there are still significant issues facing female surgeons.

According to the Royal College of Surgeons in England, the ratio of male to female consultant surgeons in the UK is approximately 8:1.

This disparity between male and female surgeons is marked. It reflects that fact that for many centuries women were barred by men from practicing surgery in the UK.

Only in 1876, did parliamentary legislation open up medical and university education for women. By the end of that century, women were able to study medicine at almost all British universities.

By 1919 there were only four women Fellows of the Royal College of Surgeons of England; 90 years later this figure was 1184.

Women in surgery today

Today, more women than ever are considering medicine as a career. In fact, according to the Universities and College Admissions Service (UCAS), in 2020, 64% of people accepted on to medicine and dentistry degree courses in the UK were women.

The numbers of female surgeons are also rising. Based on 2022 data from NHS Digital, in 1991, 3% of consultant surgeons in the UK were female and this rose to 14.7% in 2022. In terms of surgical specialisms, the highest percentage of female surgeons are in paediatric surgery at almost 30%, followed by plastic surgery at around 22%.

Issues facing today’s female surgeons

Whilst surgeons can already work long and unsociable hours, this lifestyle can prove particularly difficult for women who need to take on the main responsibility for parenting.

In 2021, the Kennedy Review made a key recommendation to deliver a flagship Parents in Surgery project to help current and prospective surgeons balance parenthood and a surgical career.

Then in 2022 the RCS England commissioned the Nuffield Trust to carry out an independent review of the impact of parental or caring responsibilities on pursuing a career in surgery.

All of this will hopefully help female surgeons to find a workable and healthier balance between providing their surgical expertise, whilst having time to properly care for their children.

Sadly, another issue facing female surgeons that has recently been highlighted in the media is that fact that many are experience sexual harassment or assault in the workplace.

According to a study published in the British Journal of Surgery, almost one in three female surgeons working in the NHS said they have been sexually assaulted in the past five years.

This has led the chair of the Women in Surgery forum at the Royal College of Surgeons of England to call for the creation of a national implementation panel to oversee action on the report’s recommendations and for incidents of sexual misconduct to be independently investigated.

In addition, a Guardian/British Medical Journal investigation found that more than 35,600 “sexual safety incidents” had been recorded in NHS hospitals in England over the past five years.

Clearly, these sorts of findings may in themselves put off some very talented women from entering the profession or indeed being able to continue in it.

Women together – support for female surgeons

Thankfully, there is a strong support network for women specialising in surgery. It’s called Women in Surgery (WinS) and is a national initiative dedicated to encouraging, enabling and inspiring women to fulfil their surgical career ambitions.

By registering for the WinS network you can connect with over 6,000 women from all career grades and specialties across the UK to collaborate, network and find support. To find out more and how to join click here.