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Female doctors given lower status positions in picture books

BSMS > About BSMS > News > 2015 > Female doctors given lower status positions in picture books

Female doctors under-represented and given lower status positions in children's picture books

Published in the Christmas 2014 edition of the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, the study involved scrutinising the text and illustrations of 48 recent fictional and factual children's books featuring medical consultations and hospitalistation.

Dr Hemanth Rao worked with Chair of Primary Care Professor Helen Smith on 'The Representation of Women Doctors in Children's Picture Books' while he was an F2 in academic General Practice at BSMS.

Over the past few decades, the number of female doctors in the UK has increased steadily, and now over 50% of UK medical students are female. "We were interested to see whether and how this might be reflected in children's medicine-related literature," says Professor Smith. "We found that only 37% of the doctor characters were female, and 59% were male, with a few 'animal' doctors of indeterminate sex."

While workforce statistics show that 37% of GP partners and one third of hospital consultants are female, the children's books did not reflect this reality; they portrayed female doctors working predominantly in primary care or community settings.

"The tendency to show women in primary care could be interpreted as stereotyping, with women placed nearer the home and further from the high status world of hospitals," says Professor Smith. Interestingly, female doctors were more likely to be portrayed taking a history from their patients, while their male counterparts were undertaking examinations or procedures. To the child impressed by diagnostic technology, the work of the male doctor may appear more important.

"We were also interested to see whether the author's gender influenced the choice of gender of the doctor characters they created," she adds. "We found that female authors created an equal number of male and female doctors, while most of the doctors created by male authors were male.

"Although the representation of female doctors in books doesn't reflect social reality, and we would encourage taking steps to rectify this, we appreciate that books are just one of many influences on the construction of gender models: others, particularly children's television programmes, are far more important."