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More Harm Than Good?

Never was there a better time to debunk myths. The assumptions of our rather complacent anthropogenic age have been thrown into disarray by an invisible virus. Humans in all sectors of society are exercising some form of introspection. Time to think anew about a more equitable world – in every respect.

For 2021, The Ophthalmologist decided to “readdress the gender imbalance” and to highlight the achievements of women in the field with an all-women Power List. I’d like to analyze this.

The Power List concept is a media construct. In the Forbes’ magazine list, slots are allocated based on “the amount of human and financial resources” that a person controls, as well as their influence over world events. As the list can include autocratic leaders responsible for pretty nasty events for humankind, it is generally accepted that “power” is not unambiguously good. 

Then, the interpretation of “power” was played with as different media outlets wanted to list and rank people they felt were the most famous in their field. More and more people got sucked into the belief that such lists were in some way important, informative, or even inspirational.

They always start out all male – or predominantly male – and stubbornly remain so.

Power Lists, however, are full of pitfalls, and they tend to follow the same predictable path. They always start out all male – or predominantly male – and stubbornly remain so. Then, following criticism, and to “readdress the imbalance,” the relevant media outlet decides to compile a “women only” version. Inevitably, this, too, causes problems, as those who do the choosing normally come from a privileged background themselves and rank others accordingly. Then efforts are made to focus on “diversity,” and people coming from ethnic minorities are included. But these are, inevitably, men and women who are already in the media spotlight. The end result? A Power List with a split personality – like the BBC’s Woman’s Hour list – ranking the Queen, with her inherited power, alongside Doreen Lawrence, who continues to fight a prolonged battle to get justice over the murder of her son. 

What is the point of placing anyone in such a hierarchical, competitive, and ultimately misleading category? What purpose does it serve?

In The Ophthalmologist’s Top 100 Women Power List, nominees are described as “world-class,” “leading authorities,” “superstars,” and “experts.” Most are associated with well-known hospitals or institutions. So, in essence, far from being truly inclusive or diverse, it simply replaces one exclusive list with another. And, here lies the rub, in “honoring” women for rising to prominent positions in this way, we achieve the exact opposite: it highlights just how aberrant this success is – so outside the norm that these people need a special list. To quote Richard Ditizio of the Milken Institute: “Each time we offer or accept an accolade based on gender, race or sexual orientation, we are feeding into the troublesome way of thinking that landed us with such inequality in the first place.”

In ophthalmology, as in medicine generally, women are present in large numbers. And yet they face double standards at every stage of their careers, which result in lower salaries, less recognition for their work, and the persistence of stereotypes. Elevating a few on the pedestal of a Power List achieves little. It is too much like hand clapping in support of hard-working frontline nurses in the pandemic, but never campaigning to get them better working conditions.

In 1976, I became the first female British Asian news reporter on BBC TV. For 10-year-old Samira Ahmed, who had already decided that she, too, was going to be a broadcaster, my appearances reaffirmed her goal. Forty years later, and despite being a well-known broadcaster, she had to take the BBC to court to get equal pay. She won.

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About the Author
Lucy Mathen

Ophthalmologist and writer

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