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A Level Playing Field?

Last October, I wrote an Editorial about gender imbalance in ophthalmology (1), bemoaning the fact that only 13 percent of last year’s Power List (and an identical percentage of presenters at the main symposia at ESCRS) were women. I put forward a hypothesis that this was function of history – a hangover from the old days when there were deficits in opportunity and recognition, and that as the top brass moved on, a greater proportion of women would be sitting round those boardroom tables, or stepping up to those podiums.

Last month, we ran the Power List again, this time featuring the “Top 40 Under 40.” Were more women among the rising stars of ophthalmology? Sadly not. Six out of the top 40 were women – 15 percent. Hardly a sea change. So the question I ask – and there’s a comment function under this article on our website – has our sampling method of a public vote missed the real trend (I’d be surprised; the number of votes was enormous), or is this an accurate representation of reality? If the latter is the case, then the obvious question to me is: why?

The American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson gave a useful allegory when he tackled the question of “women in science” in an amusing but very astute way back in 2009 (1): “I’ve never been female…” he begins, “but I have been black my whole life.” He goes on to say that despite wanting to be an astrophysicist since the age of nine, it was “hands down, the path of most resistance through the forces of society.”

“Don’t you want to be an athlete?” teachers would ask. How did Tyson get to where he is today? Simple: because his interest in the universe was so vast, and because he was so absolutely driven that he pushed through all the obstacles placed in his path. But how many great scientists – or ophthalmologists – get lost along the way, pushed out by outmoded expectations?

Rebuking previous answers to the question of women (or other minorities) in science, Tyson concluded, “Before we start talking about genetic differences, [we’ve] got to come up with a system where there’s equal opportunity…”

But when more women have been graduating medical school than men for a number of years now – is there, and where is there, a deficit in opportunity? Or is there a better explanation?

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  1. Neil deGrasse Tyson at a New York Academy of Sciences, Center for Inquiry conference: “Secular Society and its Enemies.” NDGtyson (for the full panel discussion, visit
About the Author
Mark Hillen

I spent seven years as a medical writer, writing primary and review manuscripts, congress presentations and marketing materials for numerous – and mostly German – pharmaceutical companies. Prior to my adventures in medical communications, I was a Wellcome Trust PhD student at the University of Edinburgh.

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