An interview with Annie, on Gender Bias and Raising Concerns at Work in Medicine

Annie Heybourne is the President of a Widening Access to Medicine Society at Hull York Medical School. She is currently in her fourth year of medical school and is undertaking a research project, looking into the experiences of women who raise concerns at work.

"Hull York Medical School" "Kathryn Chia"

On Annie's research project...

Why did you choose the topic of women raising concerns at work?

We have to conduct a research project as part of our third and fourth years at medical school. The idea is that we choose something we are interested in and carry out a project, and eventually all the students present their work at a conference day. It is up to the individual to find a supervisor to work with on the project and I asked someone who I had worked with before on a separate project. My supervisor was working on gender bias at the time. Gender bias is an area which has always interested me. As a female medical student, I often receive comments on placement, from both doctors and patients, such as “I guess you are going to be a GP as you will want to have a family”. My supervisor suggested adding a twist to this, by looking into raising concerns at work and whether there was a gender bias. Raising concerns at work is a natural part of any job, but is particularly important in healthcare roles. In medical school, we are always encouraged to speak up when you feel something is not right and reflect on experiences which have been challenging.

What do you plan to investigate and do for your project?

I conducted a literature review and found that no research has looked into gender bias and raising concerns, however there was plenty of research indicating there is a gender bias in medicine. I chose to concentrate on experiences of those who have raised concerns at work and therefore came up with the title: What is the lived experiences of women whistleblowers? To gather the data, I will be conducting hour-long interviews with healthcare professionals who have raised concerns at work and then I will analyse them using Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis; this is a technique which explores personal experience.

What do you expect to find out?

I am unsure what I will find, which is quite exciting! I hope to be able to produce a coherent piece of research which summarises the experiences of women who have raised concerns at work, identifies barriers to this process, and suggests some improvements for the future.

On Gender Bias in Medicine...

With regards on you receiving comments on placements that are Gender Biased- Have these comments and these biases affected your thoughts on what you’d like to specialise in in the future?

I would be lying if I said the comments did not affect me. However, medicine is so much more than just a job and it is incredibly important to choose an area that you enjoy and are curious about. So I will try not to let gender biases in medicine affect my speciality choices.

In the medical setting, how difficult is it to raise concerns at work? Are there any negative consequences to this and do people find it hard to do?

I personally have never had to raise a concern at medical school, so I am not sure how easy or challenging the process is. From reading some of the high-profile cases (of NHS professionals who have raised concerns), it seems like historically it is a very difficult process with potentially negative consequences. The old term 'whistleblowing' has many negative connotations, and this has deterred people from raising concerns at work. 'Whistleblowers' have been known to have their personal and professional lives derailed, and often the investigation takes a number of years before things gets straightened out. It can be a very long-drawn-out process. However, there has been a push to replace 'whistleblowing' with 'raising concerns', in order to paint it in a positive light and get across that is it a useful notion and should be encouraged rather than discouraged.

What are some of your thoughts about Gender Bias in Medicine? Has it improved over the past few years and is it still improving?

I can only speak from my own experience, but I think it has improved. When I initially started at medical school, the majority of our clinical teachers and consultants on the wards were male, however there is much more representation now. In most medical schools, there is actually now a majority of women studying to be doctors, and there are efforts to advocate women in specialities that traditionally were male-dominated. Social media campaigns (such as #ILookLikeASurgeon), and the formation of organisations and societies have definitely helped.

With regards to Gender Bias in Medicine, and raising concerns in the workplace, what are some changes and improvements you'd like to see in the community and beyond?

In terms of gender bias in medicine, I’m hopeful that time will help. We can all supporting societies and groups which are campaigning for change, as well as continuing to discuss the issues with peers and colleagues. Finding a good role model, in person or on social media, can also be really helpful.

In terms of raising concerns in the workplace,I think encouraging openness is really key. Raising a concern does not have to be a formal process, it can simply be a brief chat with your colleague or superior. For this to happen, the individual who’s raising the concern needs to feel comfortable talking to their colleague or superior, and the person hearing the concern needs to feel open to hearing that so they can work together and find a solution. As healthcare professionals we are responsible for our patients and so we have a duty to speak up when something is not right. Fostering good relationships with those you work with, especially your seniors, is fundamental. Individuals should not be blamed for raising concerns, as it is part of the job. There needs to be less blame of the person raising the concern and more attention towards the situation and to enacting solutions to ensure it does not keep happening. Continual incorporation of these positive attitudes towards raising concerns into medical education will also help. For instance, we are always encouraged to speak up if we are not comfortable with something we see on placement. Reflections, although not very popular, can also help as it enables you to consider the events and why you felt it was not right.

K: Thank you so much for answering all my questions Annie! This was really interesting :) All the best with your project!

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