My maternal grandmother was born in 1923. In 1945 she worked as a laundress in Dublin. This was back breaking work, the sort of toil that makes Friday night on the floor in A&E look like an easy ride. In the Summer of that year she stood with 1,500 laundry workers on a picket line with the Irish Women’s Worker’s Union to demand not one, but two weeks paid holiday from her employer as a basic entitlement. The strike was monumental for more than one reason. Other working class unions identified with the laundry women’s struggle and offered support where they could, the power of the ruling classes, government and even the church hierarchy however rallied around the wealthy business owners and as a result the strike was dragged out over some fourteen weeks. For working class women in the climate of post war Europe, this hardship was not to be sniffed at; but they persevered.
Secondly it was a strike by women, who stood firm in their worth at a time when they did not have the luxury of being able to expect equality and when they won, they won a right which was extended to all Industry workers in Ireland.
In 1948, my grandparents married and over the next 15 years between 1949 and 1964, my grandmother had twelve children. When the youngest of her children was about 9 years old she returned to work as a cleaner in a hospital and continued this work until she was seventy years old.
In 2012, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) quoted Professor Jane Dacre, then medical school director of University College London as saying
“when the 2007 female cohort [of specialty trainees] become consultants, female consultants will be 55% [of the workforce]. So feminisation is a fact. There is a tsunami of women coming through” .
Personally, I take a little issue with an increase in female consultants being compared to a natural disaster (!) but 9 years later it is interesting to note that according to NHS employers current data, the proportion of female doctors employed as consultants is actually still just 32%. The interest in a growing cohort of female doctors at this time sparked the BBC headline ‘women docs weakening medicine’….a headline which has been be periodically dragged out since, perhaps most notoriously in recent times by Dominic Lawson in The Times.
My grandmother was a tower of strength. She was a giant and I have told you her story because it is one of the reasons I am lucky enough to have grown up knowing the truth; that feminine is anything but weak. To me, the idea that the association of female workers with weakness has continued to drag at the heals of female doctors, even in the twenty first century, is unbelievable. More than unbelievable though, it is just wrong.
You will understand now why, when I tell you that the idea that being female would ever be seen as a negative attribute when I became a doctor was not what I expected at all. Thoughts like that were just not part of my world. When I was half way through my medical degree however I was assigned a placement in intensive care at a district general hospital. As is the norm, I very much looked up to the male consultant we were attached to, but when I told him it was my dream even back then to do intensive care medicine as a career, he told me it was not a career for females. When I left the hospital that evening, my world fell apart. Dramatic as it sounds, I was honestly devastated. It was like I had been hit with a wrecking ball; all this time I had no idea I was inherently inadequate and what was I supposed to do with my dreams now?
Thankfully this was just a temporary break in my self esteem. I soon remembered who I was and where I came from and I have never encountered a similar attitude from any of my intensive care mentors since. In fact my experience since has been very much the opposite and I have some consultants at University Hospital Coventry and Warwickshire to thank for that.
Yesterday The Department of Health Published it’s own equality impact assessment (EIA) on the junior doctor contract they have lined up for imposition and we were reminded that the facade of support for gender equality in the workplace is depressingly fragile. As a female I read the words with absolute disbelief and perhaps simultaneously the most comforting and frustrating thing is that every single male doctor I have spoken to has shared the same reaction.
“We consider that any indirect adverse effect on women is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”
“…could give rise to inequalities implications…..but if this were the case we consider that any impact would be justifiably legally as indirect impact resulting from a legitimate aim”
“…while this may disadvantage lone parents (who are disproportionally female)….in some cases this may actually benefit other women, for example where women have partners…”
I will not linger on the point that the ‘legitimacy’ of aims are only as trustworthy as those in charge and that so far, The Department of Health have not at any stage proved that their association of the new junior doctor contract with a so called ‘seven day NHS plan’ is remotely justified. Their aims are far from legitimate and if you take one piece of truth from this writing I would like it to be this, that junior doctors have never been a barrier to improvements in NHS services.
The language used by the department of health in their EIA is both frightening and deeply concerning. But this time, I have absolutely no intention of letting my world fall apart, temporarily or otherwise.
The question of course is where do we go now? This is not something I know the answer to, but I know this much; we will not go backwards. We will not accept a contract that attempts to once again kindle the discrimination of female doctors in the medical workforce.
So let me be clear Mr Hunt, I am a female doctor, I am an asset to our NHS and I will not be collateral damage in your plans.