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Women In Science - from a Transplant Surgeon

Lorna Marson is a Professor of Transplant Surgery and Mum to a Debate Mate team member, and discusses the challenges of being a woman and mother in a male-dominated field of medicine 👩‍⚕️

What does it mean to be a Professor of Transplant Surgery?
It means I have two jobs really: the first is to deliver excellent care to patients who need a transplant, to perform those transplants and to look after the patients afterwards. My second job is to undertake research which aims to improve outcomes for patients after kidney transplantation. Some of this research is based in the laboratory, working alongside basic scientists and supervising postgraduate students most of whom, like myself, are surgeons. I also teach undergraduate medical students and I am responsible for admissions to Edinburgh Medical School.

The path that led me to be doing the job that I'm doing has been a long one. Training in surgery takes approximately 10 years from graduation and can be tough, involving a lot of on call and night-time work. I have two children who are now young adults, and I was fortunate to be able to undertake several years of my training working less than full time, allowing me to balance a tough career with my family.

There remains a real challenge for women in surgery and for women who wish to balance a clinical and research career as I have done. Less than 15% of consultant surgeons across the UK are women and there is only a small number of female professors within medicine.

As I reflect on the potential reasons for the low number of women in these careers, I realise that this is a complex and multi-factorial issue. As I mentioned training in surgery takes a long time, it is tough, and this coincides with the time when many women wish to consider having a family. If, as a young surgeon, you have no experience of working with a more senior female colleague who perhaps has had their family it is very difficult to imagine how this would work. The lack of senior role models is a significant obstacle that prevents young women from pursuing this career. It is the same in clinical academia and I suspect the story is similar across other scientific disciplines. As one of my trainees said to me, “You cannot be what you cannot see”. We have to think carefully about how to make role models visible and accessible to women even while they're still at school. Social media provides an exciting platform upon which to do this and we must consider how we can optimize the visibility.

Sadly, there are some attitudinal challenges that have to be overcome. Some people continue to believe that surgery is not a specialty for women and particularly those who wish to have a family. Once again, I think that improving the visibility of women in surgery and science will help to dispel these myths that are no longer true.

This is not to say that careers in science and in surgery are easy. My strong belief is that if anyone wishes to pursue a career in these areas irrespective of race, gender or socio-economic class they must be encouraged and supported to do so.

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted upon the number of applications to medical school, with a 20% increase in applicants across the UK. I think the last year has made people think about what really matters and they wish to contribute to society in a positive way. It is an exciting time to be joining the medical profession with a huge range of opportunities to contribute to science and to patient care. 

To young women or girls at school who enjoy science and wish to pursue a career in a scientific field, I would say believe in what you want to do; don't always listen to what everyone around you says, be your own guide. Try to find out as much as you can about the area of science or medicine that interests you, don't be afraid to ask questions of experts and senior individuals- we all like talking about ourselves and the work that we do! Be as proactive as you can be to prepare yourself before the next step on your journey. I wish you well.