Overestimating women’s representation in medicine: a survey of medical professionals’ estimates and their (un)willingness to support gender equality initiatives

Image of a man's arm with a watch on, the man is wearing green medical scrubs and has a stethoscope around his neck
Author/editor: Begeny, C., Grossman, R., Ryan, M.
Published in (Monograph or Journal): BMJ
Year published: 2022
Issue no.: BMJ Open 2022



Objective Amidst growing numbers of women in certain areas of medicine (eg, general practice/primary care), yet their continued under-representation in others (eg, surgical specialties), this study examines (1) whether medical professionals mistakenly infer that women are now broadly well represented, overestimating women’s true representation in several different areas and roles; and (2) whether this overestimation of women’s representation predicts decreased support for gender equality initiatives in the field, in conjunction with one’s own gender.

Design Cross-sectional survey.

Setting UK-based medical field.

Participants 425 UK medical consultants/general practitioners and trainees (ST/CT1+/SHO/Registrar); 47% were female.

Main outcome measures Estimates of women’s representation in different areas/roles within medicine, examined as a composite estimate and individually; and a multi-item measure of support for gender-based initiatives in medicine.

Results Medical professionals tended to overestimate women’s true representation in several different areas of medicine (general practice, medical specialties, surgical specialties) and in various roles (consultants/general practitioners, trainees, medical school graduates). Moreover, these erroneous estimates predicted a decreased willingness to support gender-based initiatives, particularly among men in the field: composite overestimation*respondent gender interaction, B=−0.04, 95%CI −0.07 to −0.01, p=0.01. Specifically, while female respondents’ (over)estimates were unrelated to their level of support (B=0.00, 95%CI −0.02 to 0.02, p=0.92), male respondents’ tendency to overestimate the proportion of women in medicine predicted lower support for genderbased initiatives (B=−0.04, 95%CI −0.06 to −0.02, p<0.001).

Conclusions While some progress has been made in gender representation in the medical field, this research illustrates that there are still barriers to gender equality efforts and identifies who within the field is focally maintaining these barriers. It is those individuals (particularly men) who overestimate the true progress that has been made in women’s representation who are at highest risk of undermining it.

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