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Redressing the gender balance

17 October 2018

3 minutes to read

Redressing the gender balance

The under-representation of women in surgical roles is being addressed by research from a leading University of Exeter academic.

Michelle Ryan is a Professor of Social and Organisational Psychology and Associate Dean for Research and Knowledge Transfer in the College of Life and Environmental Sciences, her latest ground-breaking research examines how perceived surgical stereotypes relate to the under-representation of women in surgery – despite a substantial improvement in the representation of women in the workforce, women make up just 16 per cent of surgical trainees.

Michelle’s expertise in the area is renowned. She will be speaking at next week’s Business Leaders Forum about understanding gender diversity, how business leaders and academics can work together and why there is still a significant gender representation gap in surgical roles.

Michelle and co-investigator Dr Kim Peters collaborated with the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS), the Medical Women’s Federation (MWF) and Scalpel to examine the underlying factors causing women to opt out of a career in surgery.

Michelle explained: “We were approached by the Royal College of Surgeons to look into the under-representation of women in surgery. They thought it might be to do with personality differences between men and women, but we were more convinced that subtle social processes would have greater explanatory value.”

Research Findings

The research demonstrated that women’s under-representation can be linked to how they view their own skills compared with the stereotypically masculine image that defines surgery.

The project revealed that women’s perceived lack of identity fit reduces their expectation that they will succeed in a surgical role.

Women in Surgery

In response to the findings of this research, Michelle and Kim developed a Women in Surgery seminar series to increase the visibility of female surgical role models and provide male and female role models who challenge the perception that surgeons need to be a particular type of person.

The seminars were complemented by resources, including vodcasts and blogs, which provided positive role models for female surgical students and bolstered female medical students’ and surgical trainees’ perceptions of the fit between their identity and the surgical identity.

The Glass Cliff project

This project follows on from Michelle’s previous research, with Prof Alex Haslam, into why women who break through the glass ceiling are then faced with the ‘glass cliff’ of helming a failing company.

This work, exploring the idea that women who gained positions on the board of FTSE 100 companies tended to be appointed in companies that were performing poorly, was named one of the ideas that shaped 2008.

The research showed that women are more likely than men to occupy precarious leadership positions and raised questions about subtle gender discrimination and how gender stereotypes influence female representation in the workplace.

This pioneering research, known as the Glass Cliff project, was also short-listed for the Times Higher Education Supplement Research Project of the Year in 2005.

Michelle was delighted with the recognition, saying: “It was a real honour, for the New York Times in particular, because recognition from outside of academia suggests you are doing work that resonates out there in the real world.”

Future research

Next year Michelle will be starting a British Academy mid-career fellowship that builds on her research into workplace identity and looks at whether women are the same at home and at work.

She explained: “We aim to demonstrate a new understanding of work-life balance that is not explained entirely by time, but by compatible and incompatible identities – is who one is at home compatible with who one is at work?”

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