"My secret to success": female consultants share their stories

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According to a recent report, more women than ever are entering the medical profession and many are choosing specialities that were previously dominated by men.

Dr Nitha Naqvi, consultant paediatric cardiologist

"I truly believe I have the best job in the world. Both my parents are doctors and they inspired me from an early age. We lived in hospital accommodation for most of my childhood and as a result I always feel very much at home in the hospital environment.

Paediatrics was the perfect speciality for me, as I love being with children. I chose cardiology because the heart is the most fascinating organ in the body. There are numerous things that can go wrong when the heart is developing in the womb, but in the majority of cases we can restore health and significantly improve quality of life.

People often think my job must be upsetting dealing with critically ill children, but the converse is true. Children are incredibly resilient and I’m always impressed by how positive they are. Children very rarely moan about their health; they might scream and kick during a blood test, but then a few minutes later they’re happily playing. It is immensely rewarding to see children who have been so sick, recovering and going on to do all the things their peers do. I feel lucky to share their parents’ pride in their achievements.

Traditionally my speciality, paediatric cardiology, was male dominated, but this is changing. The long hours and frequent night time emergencies make it particularly tough for doctors with their own young children. The situation has improved over the years and now there are more women in the speciality, including a small number who work part-time while their children are young.

There are many times when it can actually be an advantage to be a female paediatric cardiologist. Teenage girls, in particular, often prefer to see a woman - especially to perform echocardiograms. Being a parent can also help. It helps you understand how stressful it is for families when children are sick, including the effects on brothers and sisters, parent's jobs and school work.

Essential to my career success is having reliable, flexible childcare and a supportive family. I have a live-in housekeeper/nanny. My husband is also a hospital consultant and we try our best to ensure our on-call rotas don’t clash, so at least one of us gets home each night.

My parents frequently stand in for me at my children’s sports days and concerts, and even move in when I am lecturing around the world. I’m lucky that I love my job. If your job is also your hobby, then hard work becomes enjoyable."

Ms Emma Beddow, consultant thoracic surgeon

"I was going to be a doctor since the age of four, according to my parents. I never played with dolls, only to bandage them up and put red ‘blood marks’ on them.

At university, we had cadaveric [a deceased body] dissection in our first year. We stood in nervous groups around the cadavers, watching the teacher. Then we were told to get on with it. There was a lot of hesitation around the room - but not from our table. I was right in there, slicing through flesh to reach the prize below. I knew at that point I would be a surgeon.

In my first year as a qualified doctor, I did six months in cardiothoracic surgery and was mesmerised. I thought, ‘this is for me’. I realised how hard it would be though - there were very few female cardiothoracic surgeons - but apart from paediatric surgery, which was just as hard as anyway, nothing came close. So I went for it.

As a female junior doctor with aspirations to become a surgeon, I knew I had to be the best on the wards, the one with the results at their fingertips, first to arrive, last to leave. That was the way it was as a female in a very male world. Most of my male colleagues presumed I’d get tired of it, leave the speciality and do something more ‘family friendly’. But I didn’t.

I became a consultant thoracic surgeon in December 2006 and took up post in January 2007. I was very lucky in a couple of ways, however. My now-husband was also a junior surgeon in a different speciality, so he understood what it was like: the long days, exhausted weekends, being too tired to eat, or late for dinner with friends. One consultant, a Welsh senior surgeon, was also very supportive. I think he saw something in me and took me under his wing.

There have been plenty of family sacrifices, too, and they continue eight years later. I have missed, and continue to miss, numerous sports days, Christmas shows and parents’ evenings throughout the years. It doesn’t get any easier. I have a lot of childcare and I rely on my parents enormously. They go to the things that I can’t get to. They feed the children most days, they help with drop-offs and pick-ups. They stay with me when my husband is away with work and I’m on call. They kiss the children goodnight when I’m not home at bedtime.

But I know that all four children get the best from me. Every minute I am home -and I see them every day- they have my full attention. Something I know I wouldn’t be able to give them if I didn’t do this job. It is a constant juggle, a jigsaw with many pieces. Sometimes I drop a ball or put a piece in wrong. But I wouldn’t change it for anything."

Shelley Rahman Haley, consultant cardiologist, lead for echocardiography

"I’ve wanted to be a doctor since I was about eight. Although my late father was a consultant radiologist and my mother was a nurse, they never put any pressure on me to study medicine. They didn’t need to. My father loved his work and told me funny, exciting and above all heroic stories about what he did. I just knew it was what I wanted for myself.

It’s not easy, though. Without doubt, women have to be more talented and work harder than their male contemporaries in order to reach similar positions. Women also tend to be judged according to different standards of behaviour and are expected to be ‘nicer’, despite being faced with the same stresses and strains.

One of the great strengths of women is their emotional intelligence. Women are often less uncomfortable than men in emotional situations - and of course, there tend to be a lot of those in our line of work.

I work with breast cancer patients, many of whom are mothers of young children, and I think it can be helpful for them to be able to discuss their fears with another woman, who is also a mother.

Juggling work and family life is extremely difficult. I have two lovely young children and I couldn’t manage without our wonderful nanny and, of course, my very supportive husband. He’s not a doctor and I don’t think he realised what he was getting into when he proposed 11 years ago! I’m also a school governor and work with one of the cardiac charities. People ask how I fit it all in and I say 'I do an awful lot between 9pm and 1am.'

In terms of achievements, I’m extremely proud to be head of department in one of the world’s leading cardiothoracic centres. Apart from that, you’ll have to ask my colleagues, friends and family - another of the differences between women and men is that women are far more reluctant to blow their own trumpets.

It’s hard to put a finger on the 'secret of my success'. I was blessed with a good share of natural ability; a loving, stable childhood; close family; wonderful friends and the gift of an amazing education. But if I had to pass on one tip I would say: 'Don’t wait around for things to come to you – decide what you want and then get out there and make it happen!'"

Professor Anita Simonds, consultant in respiratory and sleep medicine

"My route to becoming a respiratory and sleep medicine consultant was circuitous, via anaesthetics and intensive care medicine, and then into respiratory medicine.

Early in my career I did research into the mechanisms of respiratory failure in chest wall and neuromuscular disease. Through this I became involved in sleep medicine and non-invasive ventilation, just as the field began to blossom. Continuous positive airways pressure (CPAP) and non-invasive ventilation took off in a major way, opening up exciting new areas of research and patient care.

I’m probably unusual in that I haven’t taken any career breaks. I’m lucky in having a supportive family who have always been encouraging and put up with on-call rotas, trips abroad, and writing deadlines, as well as supportive colleagues, too.

I would like to say being female has been neutral in my career, but while that may be true on the clinical side, in academic medicine there is still a very significant gender disparity. Work needs to be done to redress this on a variety fronts, such as mentorships and more women in leadership positions. In pursuing my career, my strategy was first to build the clinical sleep and ventilation service, and then use that as research springboard.

What has proved most useful has been keeping on the move by developing new clinical interests every few years and building cross-speciality links. That has led to fruitful research and clinical collaborations with neurology, paediatric, sleep physiology, cardiology and bioengineering colleagues, and the extension of non-invasive ventilation into all these areas.

Getting involved internationally - for me via the European Respiratory Society - stops you being parochial and helps to drive up standards. You also need to keep an eye on what’s happening in other fields. Fortuitously, I got involved in pandemic medicine, and am now part of an EU FP7 project on pandemic preparedness. Our team has also just completed a randomised trial on tele-monitoring and a new oxygen delivery device to facilitate care in the home.

For me, the most rewarding outcomes have arisen from developing the role of ventilatory support in neuromuscular disease, in particular Duchenne muscular dystrophy and spinal muscular atrophy. Survival has increased as a result and many of our patients now survive to adulthood, when previously they would have died in childhood. In addition, we now have a fantastic new Royal Brompton Centre for Sleep. The next challenge is to build and diversify our clinical practice there."


Women in medicine - facts and statistics:

  • During 2010–13, the population of female specialists grew at more than double the rate of male specialists (21 per cent versus 9 per cent).
  • Women now make up over a half of medical students, half of GPs and a third of hospital consultants.
  • Obstetrics and gynaecology and paediatrics continue to be the preferred specialities for female doctors, with 79 per cent and 74 per cent of training places respectively being taken up by women.
  • Surgery, meanwhile, is still a speciality favoured by men, with only 12 per cent of the UK surgeon roles taken up by women.


To book an appointment with one of our talented consultants, email: privatepatients@rbht.nhs.uk or call: +44 (0)20 3131 5384