Portrait of James Barry, painted circa 1813

Portrait of James Barry, painted circa 1813

A Short History of Women in Medicine 

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson is noted as the first female physician in Britain, having received her Licence from the Society of Apothecaries (LSA) in 1865. Immediately, the Society changed its regulations in order to prevent any more women from taking the necessary exam. Another woman who had been about to sit the exam, Sophia Jex-Blake, had to find another route and eventually obtained her medical qualification from the University of Edinburgh along with six other ladies. They became known as the Edinburgh Seven. 

Technically, Garrett Andersen was not the first woman in Britain to qualify as a doctor. Margaret Ann Bulkley, from Cork, did so in 1812, by disguising herself as a man from her early teenage years. She took the name James Barry, after her maternal uncle who was a well-known artist. She succeeded in concealing her gender throughout her personal and professional life, and the truth was only discovered after her death (along with some evidence that she may have given birth at very young age as a result of childhood sexual abuse). So unsurprisingly, it turns out that Cork women were way ahead of the curve. 

In the 150 years since women were formally admitted to the profession, there have been huge social and cultural changes which have impacted all aspects of women's lives. It could be said that women have never had it so good, and that may be true, but there are still some areas which remain steadfastly unequal between the sexes. While the number of young women entering medicine has dramatically increased, with almost 70% of new entrants to Irish medical schools being female, the number of women at the higher end of the profession remains very low. 26% of Ireland's Associate Professors are women, and just 19% of Professors. Some specialties remain male-dominated, particularly surgery, cardiology and rheumatology. 

Women experience sexual harassment and discrimination more than men. They get paid less, over their lifetime, than their male colleagues. They are less likely to get promoted, more likely to relinquish career opportunities for family reasons, and are frequently asked to get the tea at meetings.

While progress has been immense since Margaret Ann Bulkley left Cork for Edinburgh, there are still challenges for female doctors. It is for this reason that the Women in Medicine in Ireland Network was established.