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Last Updated: Sunday, 25 April, 2004, 13:42 GMT 14:42 UK
Surgery 'still a man's world'
By Gillian Ni Cheallaigh
BBC News

Surgery team
Thirty years ago it was unheard of for a woman to go into surgery
Linda de Cossart strides purposefully down the corridor of the Countess of Chester Hospital, surgical mask flapping at her neck.

She is a rare exception.

A woman, and one of the most senior consultant surgeons in the country.

A member of the Royal College of Surgeons Council, she's respected by her peers, and regarded fondly by her support staff at the hospital, but most importantly, by her patients.

Entering the post-operation ward, she goes over to an elderly patient lying in bed, and takes her hand as she talks to her.

"How are you feeling now, better than this morning?

"You look a lot better. You look lovely in your pink cardie."

Male dominated

She is the absolute antithesis of the white, middle-class arrogant male surgeon marching around the wards dismissively glancing over his patients, or 'cases'.

When she began her training, 30 years ago, it was virtually unheard of for a woman to go into surgery.

"In the past women were actively discouraged from going into surgery because it was 'no good' for a woman, you couldn't combine family life.

"You had to do endless hours and there was the impression that surgery was too difficult for women, but I don't think that's the case at all,'' says Linda.

But surely, things have come a long way since then?

Well, no, not really.

Incredibly, the figures show the world of senior surgery is still dominated by men.

Only ten percent of consultant surgeons are women.

That's despite the huge numbers of women coming out of medical schools, where between 60-80 percent of graduates in any medical class are women.

Surgical training

Only a tiny fraction of those even consider going into surgery - a highly paid, highly specialised, highly respected field.

There's no doubting the fact that men 'run' surgical training and young hopefuls' career progression is a discouraging factor for those young women looking at it as a career, and a certain amount of 'macho-culture' was inevitable, but there's more to it.

It's not like it used to be with doctors and nurses.... it's much more a team effort
Linda de Cossart

The profession is well-known for its long hours, long years of training, and the need for huge dedication.

"The thing that still puts people off is seeing people working daft hours, never going home, seemingly having no control over their lives,'' Linda de Cossart confirms.

At entry level, however, there is now a changing mood.

Heather Hennessy, a Senior House Officer part-way through her surgical training, is fortunate to have Linda as a role model.

"A lot of people do think it's going to affect things like family life, you tend to have to put a lot of time in.

"It's not seen as a soft touch.

"People also perceive it's going to be male-oriented.''

But she adds: "Once you get here it doesn't feel that way.

"It's not like it used to be with doctors and nurses on the wards, it's much more a team effort, so we have lots of female colleagues and friends around us, and I certainly don't feel like the only female.''

And women are no longer discouraged, rather they are now actively encouraged, into surgery.

The Royal College of Surgeons is very aware of the need to bring more women into the field, and its Women in Surgical Training unit is dedicated to support and encouragement.

The government too is involved, and there are efforts to change work patterns, to allow more flexible training and part-time work hours so women can take breaks to have children and then return to their career without damaging it, as it would in the past.

But the training takes so long, that even if there were a massive influx today, there would be no real change at consultant level for at least ten years.

That too is being looked at, but that will also take time to change.

So for the moment, Heather and Linda remain precious rarities.

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