Breaking down barriers: Advancing gender equity in psychiatry

Young latino woman talks to therapist

Professional development in psychiatry, as in other fields, has its challenges but are they experienced differently across genders? Our NIHR Maudsley BRC Champion for Culture, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, Dr Mariana Pinto da Costa recently co-authored a study published in the journal European Psychiatry surveying over 500 psychiatrists on the gender-specific challenges currently faced by the profession. In this blog she discusses the insights from the study and calls for a more inclusive and equitable future.

In recent decades, psychiatry has had one of the highest percentages of women enrolling in training programs among medical specialties. However, the ratio of women to men in leadership roles is still disproportionally low. As a psychiatrist and a researcher, I am interested in understanding why this is the case and what could be done to address barriers and challenges that are more common for women than men in professional life.  

Together with colleagues from across Europe and with the support of the European Psychiatric Association (EPA) we surveyed 561 psychiatrists from 35 European countries asking questions about self-confidence, attitudes toward self-promotion; perceived level of career support, gender discrimination, and protection from harassment at their current institution. 

Challenges faced by women in psychiatry

Our study found that women psychiatrists encounter specific challenges that fall into two main categories: external and internal.

Women in psychiatry face environmental barriers, which encompass a lack of opportunities and support, as well as gender discrimination. Notably, we found that women reported experiencing higher rates of gender discrimination in terms of professional advancement compared to their male counterparts. This discrimination can hinder career progression and perpetuate inequalities in the field.

The other set of challenges is more internal and relate to the individual mindsets. Some women may harbour negative attitudes about self-promotion and networking, believing they lack the necessary skills to effectively promote their accomplishments. This self-doubt can be associated with fears of potential backlash or a lack of confidence. It is essential to recognize that these barriers can be deeply ingrained and may require targeted interventions to empower women to advocate for themselves and their work. The results also indicate variations between countries, potentially related to cultural expectations that women should “be nice” and “not too demanding”.

Applicability in and beyond psychiatry

While our study focused on psychiatrists, its findings may have broader implications for other mental health or health professionals. Future research should investigate whether similar or different challenges exist in related fields and with other professionals.

Our findings carry important implications and recommendations for the psychiatric community. The call to action is clear: hospital managers and service directors, university and department heads must take steps to eliminate bias against women and create more inclusive and respectful environments for all psychiatrists.

Alongside this it is vital to support women in working flexibly to help balance professional with personal responsibilities while advancing their careers. Training to address implicit gender bias and harassment, actively promote diversity and inclusion, and offer more support for career progression is paramount.

Our study also emphasizes the importance of mentoring and career development initiatives. Additionally, educational and training programs should focus on improving self-confidence and self-promotion skills for women, addressing the internal barriers that may hold women back.

Active support from men is crucial

Achieving gender parity in the field is not solely a women's issue; active support from men is crucial in addressing barriers to leadership. Collaborative efforts are key in creating a more balanced, diverse, and inclusive landscape in psychiatry. This inclusivity ensures thriving for all in their chosen fields.

Breaking down the barriers that still hinder the professional development of women in psychiatry not only creates a fairer and more inclusive field but also fosters innovation, collaboration, and a brighter future for mental health. Our findings offer a call to action for the psychiatric community to work together to tackle gender bias and create safer, more diverse, inclusive, and respectful environments for all genders. In doing so, we can advance the field and, most importantly, improve the lives of those who depend on our expertise.

Read the paper The role of gender as a barrier to the professional development of psychiatrists, Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 October 2023

Dr Mariana Pinto da Costa

Dr Mariana Pinto da Costa is Senior Lecturer at Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN), King’s College London, and a Consultant Psychiatrist at South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust.

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By NIHR Maudsley BRC at 20 Nov 2023, 09:00 AM

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