Male doctors who overestimate female representation in the medical profession are also less likely to support gender-equality initiatives, new research has found.

The study from researchers at Exeter and Oxford universities in the United Kingdom and The Australian National University (ANU) surveyed 425 UK doctors. Doctors were asked to estimate the proportion of women in various roles in medicine, and about their levels of support for gender-equality initiatives.

Both male and female doctors consistently overestimated the proportion of women in a wide range of roles and areas within medicine.

However, a difference emerged in the second part of the survey: while women who overestimated female representation still supported gender-equality initiatives, men who made this mistake showed significantly lower support.

The researchers warn these attitudes could hamper progress on gender equality in the medical profession.

Professor Michelle Ryan, a co-author of the study and Director of the ANU Global Institute for Women’s Leadership, said the findings offered clear lessons for Australia.

“Gender equity in Australian medicine and medical leadership has sadly not been achieved. Research shows that despite there being gender parity in Australian medical schools for decades, women only represent 28 per cent of medical deans and a paltry 12.5 per cent of hospital chief executives,” Professor Ryan said.

“Amid ongoing efforts to promote gender equality in the medical field, and more broadly, this research illustrates that it is important not only to consider the true representation of women but also other people’s perceptions of women’s representation.

“While we are making inroads toward gender equality, premature beliefs about parity in representation may have the unintended consequence of stymieing the progress we are making. We need to be realistic about where we are, and how much there is still to do.”

In the UK there are now more female than male GPs, and more than two-thirds of GP trainees are women. Meanwhile, some specialisms remain dominated by men. For example, just 13 per cent of surgical consultants are female.

“While progress has been made in gender representation in the medical field, our research illustrates that there are still barriers to gender equality,” Dr Christopher Begeny, of the University of Exeter, said.

“It is those individuals – particularly men – who overestimate the true progress in women’s representation who are at highest risk of undermining it.

“Male doctors routinely overestimated female representation and, being blind to this fact, they are then less willing than others to support gender-equality initiatives.

“These misperceptions can have insidious consequences, potentially undermining or even reversing the true progress made toward gender equality.

“When people ‘move on’ from gender equality concerns, it can make them more prone to exhibit bias against women.”

The study’s participants, 47 per cent of them female, included consultants, GPs and medical trainees. They were asked to estimate female representation in general practice, medical specialties and surgical specialties, before indicating their support for gender-equality initiatives such as the General Medical Council’s Gender Equality Scheme, and Women in Surgery at the Royal College of Surgeons.

Among male and female respondents who correctly estimated female representation, the gap between them in their support for gender-equality initiatives was small, with men’s support nominally lower than women’s support.

Yet among those who overestimated female representation by just 10 per cent, that gender gap grew by 150 per cent – reflecting a significant drop in support among male doctors. Women’s support remained steady.

The study did not assess why most doctors overestimated female representation, but this is possibly due to rising female representation – and focus on this issue – in recent years.

The researchers suggest methods for correcting common misperceptions among doctors, including information campaigns led by supervisors, and “affirmation” training to address the concerns of any male doctors who perceive rising female representation as a threat.

The study is published in BMJ Open.

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