International Women’s Day (8th March) is a celebration of the cultural, political, and socioeconomic achievements of women throughout the world. This day has been observed since the beginning of the 20th century when gender inequalities and oppression became so apparent that women started actively challenging society’s rules by becoming vocal and campaigning for change (read more about the history of International Women’s Day).
To mark the occasion, today we are sharing some of the many achievements of women at the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) from the past and present and take a look into what the future may hold for women working at our organisation.
While women had been allowed to practice as physicians, apothecaries and midwives for centuries, their role in these male-dominated fields was repeatedly challenged and often led to the ‘vexed question’ of women’s capabilities in these professions.
Despite being over 500 years old, the RCP only allowed women to join the college as members in 1909. In 2019, our exhibition ‘This vexed question’: 500 years of women in medicine tried to shed light on the histories of well-known pioneers and hidden medical women, uncovering and exploring the inspiring stories of the women who made not only the RCP but also the history of medicine.
In 1909, Ivy Woodward became the first woman member of the RCP, but it was only in 1935 that we see the first woman fellow being appointed. Dr Helen Mackay was the first female house physician and surgeon at Queen’s Hospital for Children in Hackney Road where she conducted ground-breaking research into rickets and anaemia. To her, we attribute the landmark discovery that iron deficiency was a major cause of anaemia in infants.
Sujata Chaudhuri was the first woman of colour to become a fellow at the RCP. She was a professor of medicine and first physician at the Lady Hardinge Medical College in New Delhi, and from 1936 to 1950 she worked for the Women’s Medical Service of India.
Zahira Hafez Abdin was the first Egyptian woman to become a member and later a fellow. She identified streptococcal infections as a cause of rheumatic heart disease in children in her community.
The RCP has also had three women presidents: Dame Turner-Warwick, Dame Carol M. Black and Dame Jane Dacre.
Dame Margaret Elizabeth Harvey Turner-Warwick was elected as the first female president of the RCP in 1989, 471 years after its foundation. At one stage in her career, she was the only female professor of medicine in the UK, and she is recognised as a principal architect of the modern speciality of respiratory medicine.
She retired from medical practice in 1987, two years before being elected as the RCP’s president.
1989 was a time of major reforms for the National Health Service (NHS) and there was also a looming workforce crisis. Margaret created a specialist unit at the RCP to collect detailed and reliable data to use in pressing for an expansion of the consultant workforce.
During her clinical and research career, she published over 200 papers and several books, including a monograph on lung immunology. She established an international reputation in the field of respiratory medicine and research, and numerous honours came her way, including being made Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 1991.
Today, the RCP strives to ensure inclusivity and diversity in recruitment and employment, as well as across its leadership roles and staff. Our organisation is currently made up of 68% female and 32% male staff.
Looking at senior leadership roles, the split is 51% female and 49% male, and women make up 63% of the executive directors team, ie the CEO and their direct reports.
The Meetings & Events team managing our Regent’s Park venue, RCP London Events, is led by a woman, Natacha Allen, and we are proud to have several women working in not only this team but also Operations and AV.
Under Natacha’s leadership, the venue and events team have won numerous awards, including accolades for its sustainable credentials and fantastic customer service.
Women will undoubtedly continue to play a pivotal role in the RCP and, as an organisation that values the role of women in every aspect of our business, we are committed to providing equality of opportunity and inclusion in employment and ensuring that unlawful discrimination does not occur in the working environment.
For example, we routinely collect voluntary information about diversity across the organisation and have a range of policies and initiatives promoting equality, diversity and inclusion. Our policies ensure the promotion of an inclusive culture for all RCP staff, accessible and appropriate services for everyone, and equal opportunities for continuous improvement and learning. Moreover, they set our commitment to working towards the elimination of all forms of discrimination and harassment.
We have a range of initiatives to support women in the future, including our maternity wellbeing initiative and our Summerskill report which is the driver for our diversity and inclusion.