Medical Women’s Federation celebrates its long history

Authors: Beryl De Souza, Rosalind Ramsay 

Publication date:  04 Mar 2008

The Medical Women’s Federation has just celebrated its 90th birthday. Beryl De Souza and Rosalind Ramsay look at why it’s still important today

“Ninety years and beyond, is it still a needed organisation?” I hear you ask. We would like to think so, and our 1200 members agree.

Particularly where women doctors are concerned, there is always the fine balance to find between work and family. The Medical Women’s Federation (MWF) is an organisation of like minded women which provides peer support and encouragement to enable women doctors to succeed in their career choices.

Women now account for 67% of medical students, and it is vital to plan for this workforce of the future. But this is not just a 21st century issue.


Back in the 1940s MWF showed its continuing interest in a range of issues relevant to women, including social medicine, pain in childbirth, the health of schoolgirls, and the place of family planning in the National Health Service, then in its infancy.

While some longstanding causes of grievance for women in the profession had been eradicated by then, there were still many problems for women doctors in pursuing their careers and obtaining advanced qualifications. These particularly affected married women, and questions around part time work came to play an increasing part in the federation’s activities.

Campaigning issues

Part time work and juggling family commitments with training were issues for the federation then, and are still very much campaigning issues for MWF today. Having a voice for women doctors has enabled our concerns and issues to be raised. As an organisation, MWF has formal and invited representation on a number of influential national committees and charitable organisations, including the NHS Employers Medical Workforce (Equality and Diversity) Reference Group, various BMA committees, and the Advisory Committee on Clinical Excellence Awards.

The networking system among women doctors is, you might argue, a natural instinct and therefore works well for our organisation. It is a phenomenon that is extremely powerful and which we cannot underestimate. But only by active participation in the various local and national committees is it possible to put our views and points across.

Regional and national meetings

MWF is divided into 13 local regional groups (box 1). These groups hold meetings three times a year, giving members an opportunity to meet and discuss issues and also to socialise.

In addition we have two annual national meetings: the spring regional meeting and the autumn meeting in London, both of which attract high powered speakers.

Right to work flexibly

The work to increase women’s right to work flexibly continues today. In 2007, MWF won a grant from the Women and Equality Unit to investigate the barriers and solutions to making part time work a reality—not only for trainees but for doctors in all specialties and at all stages of their career. The project, headed by Helen Goodyear, president elect, has included coordinated focus groups for different groups of doctors across the country and telephone interviews with other part time doctors, both men and women, asking about their experiences. We plan to launch the results of “Making part-time work” in June this year.

Press interest and queries

Our officers act swiftly to deal with any issues about women doctors. This includes making ourselves available to deal with press interest regarding women doctors. For example, the recent article on gender and rates of consultant level activity published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine in January 2008 resulted in an immediate combined response from our organisation issued by our current president, Sue Ward (available on the website, [Link] ). This paper suggests that women doctors may not be as productive as men in a clinical setting. In our opinion it is an extremely weak study because there are several confounding variables which have not been taken into account, which must be relevant to the results. We argue it would not be too difficult to design a study that would give a more balanced and fair analysis of the efficiency and effectiveness of women doctors compared with men doctors if such a study was deemed to be useful.

In addition, we deal with queries from women doctors wanting advice about careers and jobs, and our website gives general information on our history, campaigns, meetings, and much more.


We publish a monthly newsletter giving useful information on consultations members may wish to respond to, committees to apply to, grants, and other meetings of interest. In addition we have an editorial team that publishes our own journal, Medical Woman, quarterly with articles written mainly by our own members.

Support and encouragement

We encourage and support women doctors at all stages of their careers. We have various prizes and bursaries for medical students (box 2), and we also invite abstract submissions for presentation at our meetings. We try to prompt our junior doctors to join various committees and to submit papers for publication. For our consultant members, we give advice and support their applications for clinical excellence awards. We also encourage our consultant members to mentor and support our more junior members and to involve themselves in various committees.

We are aware of global issues affecting women and child health and also issues affecting women doctors in other continents. MWF members automatically become members of the Medical Women’s International Association, which represents women doctors from all five continents. The association’s conference in Ghana last year was attended by a number of our members.

Our members comprise women doctors in various specialties and in different roles, including postgraduate deans, professors, presidents of royal colleges, and chairs of national committees.

Finally, we would like to invite women doctors to become members of a thriving organisation that will help you make new friends and support and encourage you to achieve a satisfying career and a good work-life balance. And in case you wondered, we are exempt from equality rules, so although men are not allowed to join, we would not bar men who want to attend our conferences and submit abstracts or posters.

For more information see [Link] .

Box 1: Local MWF groups

Local groups operate in the following areas: Cambridge, East Midlands, Ipswich and Colchester, London, Northern Ireland, North Wales, North West Lancashire, Oxford, Scottish Eastern, Scottish Western, South Wales, Sussex, and Western and South West

Box 2: Prizes and bursaries for medical students

Medical student elective bursaries

We offer elective bursaries to female medical students who submit an intended project. The award is judged by an appointed panel of officers

Graduate student grants

We offer mature students grants for their medical education depending on individual needs; again a panel of officers and members judge the entries

Student essay competition

Our annual Dr Katherine Branson Essay Competition is open to all medical students. The two winners receive a cash prize and an invitation to present their essay at our spring meeting

Medical school award

We sponsor a prize at each UK medical school for the best student nominated by the university for work around a women and child health project

Box 3: Why should you consider joining the federation?

“There is a lack of medical women in senior positions. The MWF provides an established network to encourage women to excel in their careers and to support women through the more varied careers associated with female roles.

“The MWF is able to talk to government on behalf of women doctors. No other organisation can do this. It can highlight the problems women doctors face through different parts of their careers from childcare to pension issues that leave women in a financially less favourable state than men. The medical profession has the largest gender pay gap among UK workers”—Anita Holdcroft, co-chair, Medical Academic Staff Committee, BMA

“MWF is needed to provide ‘women’s doctor views.’ This will not be consistent but will change as each individual proceeds in her career. Each doctor has individual domestic problems—the MWF can help individual doctors from different specialties to meet, socialize and discuss. Changes and political action may be needed so it is important that women doctors get organised and do not lose out because they have babies.

“The early MWF started as a social club and this is important but perhaps younger members are less keen on this, but are more aware of the need to be political”—Dame Beulah Bewley, past president, MWF

Although female medical students now outnumber male students, women are still under-represented at the top of the profession. Things have improved with a woman president of the BMA and of the Royal Society of Medicine and Carol Black leading the Academy of Royal Colleges, but there is still discrimination and many women doctors do not fulfil their potential in a profession that continues to be male dominated.

“MWF provides a supportive environment to help younger women doctors to see how they can learn to be effective within the changing medical environment and become politically active. Seeing older women achieving things provides good role models and mixing with them at meetings provides camaraderie that may be missing in the work environment”—Wendy Savage, past president, MWF

“The MWF has provided a safe learning environment to develop my committee and negotiating skills, learn about different aspects of service organisation and provide supportive advice at times when career development seemed difficult. No one else in medicine fulfills this role for a woman combining career and family”—Baroness Ilora Finlay, past president, MWF, and president, Royal Society of Medicine

“My tip is, ‘If you don’t like the rules, get into a position where you can change them.’ The MWF can provide both experience and direct influence to achieve this”—Fiona Subotsky, past president, MWF

Box 4: Can you share one tip that has helped you to progress with your career?

“Go from failure to failure with enthusiasm. Working with other professional examiners I learned that most women put in their application to be an examiner once. If they were turned down they felt so demoralised that they did not apply again. For men, the average number of applications was three—they had no hang-ups about re-applying”—Anita Holdcroft, co-chair, Medical Academic Staff Committee, BMA

“Make up your mind what you want to do and know you are capable of doing and don’t allow people to tell you that you can’t do it because you are a woman. I have never forgotten being told by the senior obstetric consultant at the London in his Harley Street rooms when I sought his advice about progressing my career in O&G [obstetrics and gynaecology] having had four children in 8 years, lived in 4 countries in 3 continents and worked throughout that ‘there was no place for married women in O&G.’ It gave me great pleasure when 7 years later, having been to another country in a fourth continent, I was appointed as the first woman consultant at the London and met him at the Xmas party”—Wendy Savage, past president, MWF

Beryl De Souza plastic surgery registrar and joint honorary secretary, MWF  Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, London
Rosalind Ramsay consultant psychiatrist and joint honorary secretary, MWF  South London and Maudsley NHS Trust, St Thomas’ Hospital, London ,

Cite this as BMJ Careers ; doi: