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Careers - There is no glass ceiling for us

Fiona Barr talks to two women doctors in top jobs who say gender has not hindered their success.

Dr Gerada could be the first-ever chairwoman of the RCGP
Dr Gerada could be the first-ever chairwoman of the RCGP

DR CLARE GERADA - Vice-chairwoman of the RCGP
After more than half a century, the RCGP may soon elect its first-ever female chairperson. The candidate in question, current vice-chair Dr Clare Gerada, is undecided about standing.

'It's the 64 million dollar question,' she says, but her track record suggests a GP who finds it hard to resist a challenge.

After training as a psychiatrist, Dr Gerada has worked as a GP partner at the Hurley Clinic in Lambeth, a deprived London borough, for almost 20 years.

The Hurley Clinic has become the Hurley Group and now runs seven practices.

Her special interest is the healthcare of substance misusers and she was instrumental in revolutionising the way substance misuse care is delivered in primary care.

Dr Gerada has also worked as a DoH adviser and is medical director of a sick doctor service in London and the South East as well as being vice-chairwoman of the RCGP and a long-standing college activist.

She says: 'I have never been bothered about the male-female divide. I do not think that being a woman per se makes a difference.'

However she says that the impact of the continuing increase in the percentage of female GPs entering general practice has yet to be properly considered.

'We have to have a debate about what the feminisation of the profession means for general practice. Nobody is looking at it in terms of strategic direction and leadership.'

Dr Gerada would like GPs to follow up the work done by the Royal College of Physicians. Earlier this year, it published the results of a two-year review examining the change in gender balance in medicine. It found that by 2013 most GPs will be women and, some time after 2017 most of the medical profession will be women.

Dr Gerada has always worked full-time and argues that women doctors cannot 'have it all'. A mother of two, she says she managed by spending lots of money on childcare and cleaners.

'I was lucky that I had two very healthy children and I also live in my own (practice) patch.'

The choice, she says, is between being a stay-at-home mum who collects her children from school or a making a full-time commitment.

'You can't spend eight years bringing up your children and then expect to be at the top of the tree in your early 40s,' she says.

Since the early 1990s, Dr Gerada has led the RCGP's groundbreaking work on substance misuse.

'In those days, there were about 50 to 100 often single-handed GPs with hearts of gold caring for vast numbers of drug misusers with no training or support,' she says.

Dr Gerada worked with the college to set up substance misuse training for GPs and says it 'changed the face' of substance misuse training. Today, the mainstay of treatment is in primary care.

For her, leading the college would be 'the ultimate honour' - but first she must decide whether to go for it.

DR CHRISTINE TOMKINS - Chief executive of the Medical Defence Union

Leading an organisation that represents almost 200,000 doctors is not a job for the faint-hearted. It was also a job never undertaken by a woman until this year when Dr Christine Tomkins became chief executive of the Medical Defence Union (MDU).

'I cannot say I have come across any obstacles so far,' she says. 'What's important is to have confidence in your abilities because if you think you are going to hit a glass ceiling, then it may be that you will.'

GPs' medico-legal problems are part and parcel of the job. A former ophthalmologist, Dr Tomkins was attracted by the specialty's capacity to deliver almost instant quality of life improvements to patients.

'You remove a cataract from somebody and they can see,' she says. 'When I worked at St Thomas' Hospital we were on the eighth floor and people could look out of the window and see parliament.'

Five years after qualifying, Dr Tomkins' career took an unexpected turn when she saw an advertisement for a medico-legal adviser at the MDU. She rang up out of curiosity and was invited to find out more.

'I decided to try it for six months, got sucked in and have found it endlessly fascinating ever since.'

Dr Tomkins rose rapidly through the MDU's ranks to become its deputy chief executive in 2005. During that time, she had three sons and was one of the first MDU workers to take advantage of flexible working.

'When I was on maternity leave with my youngest son, a little white van with a bunch of files used to bring work to me at home,' she says.

She went on to set up a home-working system for the medico-legal advisers.

These days, the little white van has been replaced by secure electronic communication allowing MDU advisers to work wherever they are in the UK.

She adds: 'It's been a huge success. We do have a lot of very senior women in our organisation and I think this is a factor.

'But whatever sex they are, we want the best people and we want to keep them.'

Dr Tomkins says being organised has been the key to the successful running of her career and family. 'You need to have plan A, B and C, and also have a lot of help around you.'

Dr Tomkins stresses that although the MDU is more than 100 years old, it is an innovator, not only on flexible working, but as the first defence body to set up a 24-hour helpline and switch to an insurance-based system for claims. Future challenges include her commitment to ensure forthcoming regulation is not over burdensome for doctors.

'I am very proud to be chief executive of the MDU and I believe the job it does for its members is very worthwhile.'

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