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‘Sleepwalking into male-orientated medicine’: University of Warwick academic speaks on medical feminism

A Warwick Medical School academic has highlighted how the medical profession’s historical focus on men has left a legacy of male-orientated medicine today in a talk for TEDxNHS.

Dr Sarah Hillman, who also works as a GP registrar, described how her experiences with her patients led to her interest in the role of gender in medical practice in her talk ‘I am a medical feminist’, which is now available online to view.

She was invited to give the talk for TEDxNHS 2019 in October. TEDxNHS was founded as a unique movement to allow the voices of everyday NHS staff and patients to be heard on a national stage and spread their learning across the system. It aims to break down the walls that can exist between professions, organisations and cultures to share learning in a new and exciting way.

Watch Dr Hillman's talk in full here:

In her talk, Dr Hillman highlights examples of where a senior and highly-regarded health professional has been mistaken as male to demonstrate the effects of unconscious bias, even by herself.

She said: “I started to think about unconscious bias: if it was affecting the way I consider my colleagues, could it be affecting other things – for instance, could it be affecting the care I give my patients?

“I realised that we, as a medical society, have been sleepwalking into male-orientated medicine.”

Drawing upon her own experience as a GP, Dr Hillman described how her concerns deepened when she found that more of her female patients were telling her they were having reactions to treatments.

She explained: “Historically, much of the research around drugs has been done on proportionally more male cells, male animal models and relatively more male participants. There’s an increasing body of evidence to say that female mice have different outcomes to male mice and that would translate to work in humans.

“We then go on to administer drugs in gender-neutral doses despite the obvious size, fat muscle and hormone ratio differences.”

Dr Hillman highlights issues in diagnosis as well, citing the example of a blood test to diagnose heart attacks in which the threshold was set too high for women. Women are 50% more likely to have a misdiagnosis following a heart attack then men.

She added: “Since the days of Hippocrates, the physicians, scientists, philosophers were all men. That meant that the male body became default. The female body became the ‘other’.”

Despite significant progress in the representation of women in medicine today, there are still challenges in recruiting female doctors and progression to leadership positions that stem from pre-existing ideas of who makes a good medical professional.

Dr Hillman added: “150 years ago, seven women were the first to enrol onto a UK medical degree. Their lives were made difficult. They were charged more to attend then the men. They were instructed to find their own lecturers. And at one point, they were obstructed by hundreds of people from entering an anatomy exam.

“These women were known as the Edinburgh Seven and they went on to achieve everything that was expected of them, and more. But they were never allowed to graduate for fear of upsetting the status quo.

“Women now make up the majority of doctors in training, and even in traditionally male-orientated specialities such as surgery the proportion of women in training is on the rise. However, there is some way to go and the pipeline shows that we lose many talented women on the way.”


23 January 2020


Peter Thorley
Media Relations Manager (Warwick Medical School and Department of Physics)


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