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Issue 127 Spring 2018

Endocrinologist > Spring 2018 > Features

‘Feminism’ – still an endocrine issue?

Victoria Salem | Features

Merriam-Webster, publisher of America’s leading dictionary, announced that its most searched for word of 2017 was ‘feminism’. After years of believing that we had reached a ‘post-feminist’ position of equality, President Trump had saved us from this false reverie. Indeed, whatever your opinion is on the recent outpouring of sexual harassment allegations that have unseated high profile public figures, the new wave of feminism can hardly have passed you by.

Of course, we endocrinologists needn’t worry ourselves about such concerns. The Society for Endocrinology reports that 44% of its membership are women. In terms of UK clinical trainees, we reached gender parity in the specialty of endocrinology and diabetes some time ago, and now our consultant body is also equally distributed.1 Moreover, endocrinologists are often the most satisfied/least burned-out in surveys of work–life balance amongst clinicians.2

On the other hand, the Society doesn’t make records of what proportion of its professorial membership is female. Quickly scanning the professors of endocrinology at universities in London suggests that the figure remains steadfastly below 20%. This is despite more than enough time having elapsed since women outnumbered men at medical graduate level to have seriously altered that proportion. More broadly, a similar proportion (<20%) of newly elected fellows to the Royal Society or successful Wellcome Trust Senior Investigators are female.3 Once again, in 2017, women were seriously under-represented in new NHS Clinical Excellence Awards.4

‘Probably unconsciously, the characteristics of successful academics – competition, self-promotion, aggression – are less common and/or tolerated in women.’

On the assumption that ‘success’ is commensurate with national recognition on pay scales, or rising up the academic career ladder to international research prominence, we should ask why women continue to fall behind men.


In a recent discussion which I convened with postdocs at Imperial College London, we did not detect a lack of ambition or opportunities for women. However, there was a debate whether the ability/willingness to succeed in such a competitive system was a prerequisite for success, and whether a gender bias was inherent in this.

Women still take on most of the family caring responsibilities, and very young children, even if only temporarily, have a tendency to alter career priorities enough to deal a fatal blow to one’s competitiveness.

Indeed, the view that the culture of scientific research favours men over women was more strongly expressed by Imperial’s senior female academics, who describe power and social capital still primarily in the hands of men. This may explain why the pipeline remains leaky, even for women who have not taken time off to raise a family.

Probably unconsciously, the characteristics of successful academics – competition, self-promotion, aggression – are less common and/or tolerated in women. Women still ask far fewer questions at scientific conferences (watch this space for the results a study of the gender discrepancies in the number and style of questions asked at last year’s Society for Endocrinology BES conference!). They ask for less money too – reflected in the persistent wider reports of academic gender paygaps.5

‘We should be wary that there is still work to be done, but proud of what our specialty has achieved.’


We all have a responsibility to be feminists, as part of our opposition to other systemic oppressions that still pervade our culture: racism, classism and homophobia.

In academia, the Athena SWAN (Scientific Women’s Academic Network) movement has suffered the ironic accusation that the immense administrative load that came with it was disproportionately disadvantageous to the female academics who were leading it.6 Dame Sally Davies’ decision to insist that medical schools must have an Athena SWAN Silver Award to apply for National Institute for Health Research funding provoked some cynicism, but in reality it has resulted in immense change.

Look at what your local Athena teams have done: mentoring schemes, improving the visibility of female role models, postdoc career development initiatives, carers’ funds for travel to conferences, work/life balance panels, gender pay reviews, gender-balanced promotions panels and unconscious bias training, to name but a few.

Endocrinologists play central roles in such teams across the country (Barts, Brunel, Brighton, Edinburgh and Imperial, amongst many others). We should be wary that there is still work to be done, but proud of what our specialty has achieved.

Victoria Salem, Senior Clinical Research Fellow, Diabetes and Endocrinology, Imperial College London, Hammersmith Hospital


  1. Royal College of Physicians 2017 2016–17 Census (UK Consultants and Higher Specialty Trainees)
  2. Peckham C 2017 Medscape Lifestyle Report 2017: Race and Ethnicity, Bias and Burnout
  3. Chapman K 2015 The Endocrinologist 116 26.
  4. Advisory Committee on Clinical Excellence Awards 2018 Clinical Excellence Awards: Successful Candidates 2017
  5. Career Brief 2018 Nature doi:10.1038/d41586-018-00113-6.
  6. Caffrey L et al. 2016 BMJ Open 6 e012090 doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2016-012090.

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