The BBC comedy sitcom ‘upstart crow’ depicts a young Shakespeare at the beginning of his career, struggling to establish himself in Elizabethan England’s theatre scene. In the pilot episode the script for ‘Romeo and Juliet’ nears completion, yet the playwright struggles to find a suitable male actor to play Juliet in the first performance. Kate – the daughter of Shakespeare’s landlord and an aspiring actress – offers an alternative to the norm by playing Juliet herself:
Kate: I was hinting that the answer to your Juliet dilemma could be… *points to herself*
Shakespeare: Oh, Kate, don't go there. Lady-acting is illegal. Beside which, girls can't act. Just as they cannot practise law, cure the sick, handle financial matters or stand for any office.
Kate: But no woman has ever been allowed to try any of those things!
Shakespeare: Because they can't do them! God's bodikins, Kate, what's not to get? Now, please, forget this nonsense and let me focus.
The idea (and historical reality) that women should be limited from playing female roles is now ludicrous to the point that it has become fodder for satire. Today, not only are women permitted to act, practise law, cure the sick, handle financial matters and run for office, they have become leaders in these roles.
In medicine and biomedical science, this is apparent. Last week I turned on the radio to hear Wendy Barclay talking about her work in the field of virology on the life scientific. Professor Jane Dacre is president of the Royal College of Physicians, and in 2014 Dame Claire Marx became the first female president of the Royal College of Surgeons. In every hospital specialty women are now represented, and this is of no small importance. In conversation with my peers and in the literature 1, a common theme is that the presence of female role models is instrumental in encouraging women to push professional boundaries. More personally, reading Frances Ashcroft’s popular book on electrophysiology, ‘The Spark of Life’, not only inspired me to apply to medical school, but to undertake a project in electrophysiology during my BSc year despite being the only woman in my lab.
And yet, though 55% of medical students are women, women fail to be represented to the same proportion as their graduating class, with only 34% of consultants in the UK being women2. In medical education and academia3, the proportion of women in senior roles doesn’t even approach 50%.
Furthermore, gender related preconceptions persist. At a recent teaching awards ceremony at my own medical school, the nine teaching excellence awards went to male doctors, and the two pastoral care awards were given to female doctors. These were awards nominated and voted on by medical students – demonstrating that at my place of study at least, the preconception that men are better teachers, whilst women are more caring, lingers amongst students and in the trust in which we are studying. In discussion about this with a colleague, his response was that ‘perhaps the male consultants are better at communicating tricky concepts to students’ – not exactly a far cry from to the fictional Shakespeare’s response above.
The term ‘glass ceiling’ was coined almost 40 years ago in reference to the sometimes invisible barriers to success women encounter in their careers. Persisting attitudes and the decrease in female representation up the training grades suggests that, at least in part, this ceiling still exists for women pursuing a career in medicine. However, the increasing numbers of women in senior roles suggests the barrier may be weakening – some, and an increasing number, are breaking through to the top.
One barrier to career progression women encounter, which I think is not so much ‘glass’ as something more opaque, is the fact that only females are able to become pregnant and breastfeed. However, an aspect of child-rearing in which a ‘glass’ component exists is in the subtle assumption the mother of a child should be the primary care giver. Changes in the law allowing the fathers to share parental leave with their partners, and the increase in men working part time to share the childcare more evenly, suggests this too is changing – though perhaps not quickly enough.
In Elizabethan England, the ceiling restricting the advancement of women was more concrete (or timber) than glass. Despite later empowerment of women, a ceiling persisted into the 21st century, preventing women excelling to their full potential. In my opinion, that ceiling exists still for women in the medical profession; though I no longer feel it is impenetrable. Perhaps a jelly (or agar) ceiling is a better metaphor for the situation now. Though they require more determination, my female colleagues ahead of me are slowly pushing through and weakening the barrier, forging the way for me and my peers.
1. Kapila, D. Female role models in medicine: a medical student’s perspective., Female role models in medicine: a medical student’s perspective. J. Adv. Med. Educ. Prof. J. Adv. Med. Educ. Prof. 6, 6, 49, 49–50 (2018).
2. Women and medical leadership infographics. The King’s Fund Available at: https://www.kingsfund.org.uk/audio-video/women-and-medical-leadership-infographics.
3. Equality in higher education: statistical report 2013. Equality Challenge Unit Available at: https://www.ecu.ac.uk/publications/equality-in-higher-education-statistical-report-2013/.