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At the heart of general practice since 1960

Part of our maternalism

PULSE

Gender Gap

Report

Five of the most senior women GP politicians tell us how they have reached their positions and the obstacles they have overcome to get there

Dr Maureen Baker CBE

‘You can't have it all – you have to sacrifice one thing for another'

I went straight into general practice and became a course organiser just as I was finishing being a registrar, so I went into education very early.

I was a part-time GP and I became an associate adviser in general practice and started to research. Then I became involved with the RCGP. I don't find the college macho and I never have done. I think the GPC is rather macho, and that may be because I've only been as an observer. The BMA in general has always felt more macho.

I encountered sexist attitudes much earlier in my career when I was applying for committee positions – they were concerned about how I would deal with working and having a family.

I knew when I went for the honorary secretary role at the college that if I got it I'd be away from home for two nights a week.

That means I don't have much of a social life and I've had less time with my two children when they were growing up, but I've had a satisfying career and there have to be trade-offs. Probably the most difficult decision of my career was to leave my practice where I had been a partner.

My life takes a huge amount of organisation – it takes a lot of effort to keep things running smoothly. My work is very stressful but I cope very well by going to the gym and reading North American writers like Annie Proulx and Margaret Atwood.

I think general practice is an excellent career for an ambitious woman or an ambitious man. There are certain features that make it good for women – particularly the flexibility.

I do envy male colleagues sometimes, they work very hard but they just do the job – they don't shop or cook or buy the kids clothes, which lets them be single-minded. You can't always generalise things, but that's how it tends to be. I don't think women can have it all – you sacrifice one thing for the other. If you have unrealistic expectations you'll be disappointed.

Honorary secretary of the RCGP, clinical adviser for the National Patient Safety Agency currently on secondment with the IT programme Connecting For Health

Dr fay wilson

‘Try to pal up with another woman'

I got involved accidentally in medical politics as a GP trainee 21 years ago and went on to the main GPC, first as a GP trainee representative and then as a rep elected by the BMA. Then in 2003, after the hue and cry on the new contract, the LMC conference elected me deputy chair in a fit of enthusiasm – and to my great surprise .

Locally in Birmingham I got involved in the late 1980s. From the East Birmingham GP committee came the Multifund and out of that the out-of-hours co-op, Badger, which is the thing I am most proud of.

We do need more female representation. The profession is increasingly diverse and yet it is still represented by a GPC made up of white middle-aged men.

Male GPs may work and think in a more traditional way so processes and structures (and decision-making) are more traditional and may be less pragmatic and innovative.

I have experienced intolerance and mocking of attempts to reduce institutional

sexism through inclusive language and organised whispering campaigns against women who achieve or aspire to senior

positions.

It can be a very macho world and it can be very isolating but it means you should make an effort to pal up with other women.

Secretary of LMCs for north-west London, member of GPC UK, director of the GP Defence Fund, treasurer of Birmingham LMC, member of BMA council, medical director of Badger and a GP in Birmingham

Dr Mary church

‘I'm driven rather than ambitious '

I didn't get into medical politics until about six years after I became a GP. I joined the LMC and then I went to the 1990 contract LMC conference. It was very exciting so I carried on and became LMC secretary in about 1992 and joined Scottish GPC. I wasn't particularly ambitious. I don't think you need to be pushy, you just need to be good at what you do, but then Scottish politics aren't as cut-throat as UK politics.

I was absolutely terrified when I first went to the GPC. I was really intimidated, but I soon got over it. You have to go into this old-fashioned debating chamber and it's not an atmosphere you're used to. And the way men approach things is more aggressive than women – it's a fog of testosterone.

I very rarely feel there is any sexism there – maybe I'm not that sensitive. There is also a risk that it can alienate the men if you keep going on about these things. I think medical politics is a good career if you are driven – I'm driven rather than ambitious.

I actually started out doing anaesthetics rather than general practice and at the time I thought I would have more flexibility being a GP. I thought it would be easier to move about if the man I was marrying needed to move hospitals.

I think women GPs can have it all if you want to. You just have to make arrangements and be flexible and don't get too uptight.

Joint chair of GPC Scotland, member of the GPC negotiating team and a part-time GP in

Blantyre, Lanarkshire

Dr pauline brimblecombe

‘Show we're pretty normal people'

I was told very early on that I shouldn't be involved in medical politics because I was much too emotional, so I stayed out of it until 2001 when I became involved with the GPC through the Medical Women's Federation.

My first six months were very wearing emotionally.

I felt like I'd been beamed in from some other planet. I had a difficult time initially on the BMA committee. They think as a woman all you have got to talk about is women's rights but when they realise we can represent the whole of the profession they start to respect you more.

When you don't have female representation it affects the environment. In Cambridge, we have so many women GPs that gender does not become an issue anymore. There's much more co-operation and team working.

At the BMA we make sure we have women on each of the committees and also make sure we vote for each other. Women are not as smart in that way because we have never used the old boys' network and it's something I'm learning. We have to push women forward and make sure other people realise their potential.

We need role models of women who can have it all. We need to show that they are still pretty normal people.

I'm sure everyone around me would say that I'm driven and I suppose I am but I'm driven by wanting to improve health systems and make them more equitable.

Full-time senior partner in Cambridge, GPwSI in gynaecology, forensic medical examiner for rape victims, past-president of Medical Women's Federation, co-opted member of GPC and elected member of the BMA council

Dr barbara hakin

‘I found my skills were transferable '

I have had a great career, having had the benefit of being both a clinician and a manager. I have thoroughly enjoyed both roles because for me the biggest cause of stress is boredom – and there has certainly been no chance of that.

If you look at a 15-minute snapshot of time, nothing is as satisfying as a GP consultation where you know you have helped somebody.

But looking back at a week or a month as a manager I know I've helped to make a difference for 150,000 people.

I do think that being a GP fits well with having children – although I accept it's more difficult now.

GPs are still hard to find – it's a seller's market – so you're in a position to dictate terms.

When my children were younger I worked as a part-time principal and found this incredibly flexible. My husband is a consultant neurologist and I don't regret at all that for the first 10 to 15 years I was able to devote lots of time to children and family.

However, as the children became older I began to take on more organisation and management and I think the skills are entirely transferable.

Looking back at what I've done, I'm most proud of being the driving force behind establishing GPs with special interests.

A decade on from where we first started we have a completely new cadre of clinicians – a fully recognised role in the NHS.

Lead negotiator on the new GMS contract for NHS Employers, chief executive of Bradford South and West PCT, GP principal for 20 years until 2000, former director of primary care for the NHS Modernisation Agency

Interviews by Rob Finch and Emma Wilkinson

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