Dr Sarah Jarvis, MBE
Author: Dr Sarah Jarvis, MBE, General Practitioner (GP)

Dr Sarah Jarvis is the Clinical Director of the Patient Platform, an active medical writer, broadcaster, and the resident doctor for BBC Radio 2.

6 min read

The headline on the International Women’s Day website announces:

Imagine a gender-equal world. A world free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination. A world that's diverse, equitable, and inclusive. A world where difference is valued and celebrated. Together we can forge women's equality.

International Women’s Day was first celebrated in 1910, over 100 years ago in the days of the Suffragettes. But do we really still need it today?

The Way Things Were

In the last few months, the medical press has covered numerous stories of women in medicine who still experience discrimination. There’s no question that the situation is better than it was when I started my career, but that’s not saying much.

On my interview day, for my GP training scheme in 1987, I had 3 interview panels. Two of the three asked me if I was going to "run off and have babies".

When I became pregnant as a GP partner in the 1990s, I was given a total of 13 weeks of maternity leave. I was doing all my own on-call, working about 70 hours a week, and it was taken for granted that I would still do home visits at 3am, whilst over 8 months into my pregnancy.

It was gruelling – hardly surprising that so many of my female colleagues left the profession.

Female Figurines

Gender and General Practice

Men just about outnumber women in the medical profession, even today. But general practice has always been a popular choice for women. When I was training to be a GP in the late 1980s, women were in the minority.

In those days, salaried and part-time jobs were the exception – it was assumed that I would become a partner when I qualified, with all the extra responsibilities on top of patient care that carried.

But it soon became clear to me, that women GPs very much had the short straw. I was a founder member and chair of the Women’s Taskforce at the Royal College of GPs. We set it up when we surveyed younger GPs. While the women told us that the twin challenges of working and running a home/bringing up their children were their biggest barriers to a successful career, not one of the men we surveyed mentioned it.

Since then, the proportion of women in general practice has increased steadily – in 2014, female GPs outnumbered males for the first time and by a year later, female GP trainees were outnumbering their male colleagues by more than 2:1.

Overall, this is good news for patients – women are more likely to say they want to see a GP of the same sex than men are. Today, my younger female colleagues are much more prepared to speak out if they encounter discrimination than we were when I was training.

Women Together

Focus on the Future

This year, International Women’s Day focuses on technology and education in the digital age. The aim is to raise awareness of how digital education can help empower women and girls around the world.

You might think this is irrelevant in the UK. After all, during the pandemic, every school in the country was teaching online. Digital education platforms have become the norm and in my experience, the average 4-year-old in the UK knows more about technology than I do.

As a schoolgirl, I was lucky enough to attend a school with a computer – which filled a whole Nissen hut. The boys in my class were fascinated by the whirring technology: I opted to study shorthand and typing instead, on the basis that this computer lark was never going to catch on.

But even I have been dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st Century, and I’ve used computers in my GP consultations for almost 30 years.

In the UK, we can’t be too smug about progress. The Women in Tech survey 2023 revealed that just 1 in 4 (26%) people working in technology are women. 9 in 10 people think the technology sector would benefit from having a more gender-equal workforce – yet more than 3 in 4 women in the technology industry have experienced gender discrimination or bias.

Does it Matter if there are Fewer Women in Tech?

Technology has permeated all our lives, and it’s brought many advantages. Medical Travel Compared allows you to access detailed information about travel insurance for a host of medical conditions at the touch of a button.

Their blogs provide up-to-date information about everything you need to take into account when you travel, to maximise the chance of a stress-free, healthy holiday.

These days, I’m adept enough to add hyperlinks and access research online. But the websites we all take for granted need building – and that ability is way beyond my wildest dreams. The computer system I use in my general practice allows me to access patients’ hospital results and letters, know what tests they need and even see their records out of hours if they need urgent care.

Wherever we look, we’re reliant on technology. More than 2 million people – 6.3% of the UK workforce – now work in tech industries. Technology is part of our everyday lives – to my shame, it’s my son rather than my daughter I call when I have a computer problem. And until she – and I – can solve tech challenges as easily as men, we’ll continue to be at a disadvantage.

In the UK we think of ourselves as an advanced nation – but until we have real equality in technology, as well as, every other area of our lives, we’ll still need International Women’s Day.

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