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Student Guest Blog: Exploring Gender Diversity at RCSI

Diversity at RCSI through the Decades (1970-2015) 

By Vidhi Patel

Final Med Student


The Project 

Last summer, I had the privilege of working with RCSI Heritage Collections as part of the Research Summer School. My research project was to look at gender distribution among RCSI students and staff over a given period of time (1970 – 2015). 

Gathering the Data 

Now, more than ever, more women are entering the medical field. However, studies have shown that just because there are more women doctors, that doesn’t mean that there are more women doctors in leadership positions. A broad review of the US medical landscape in 2019-2020 found that despite women comprising 48% of medical graduates, they held only 20% of department chair positions and a mere 18% of deanships, with even lower representation for minority women.1 My research project focused on analyzing gender diversity trends within RCSI’s undergraduate medical student body from 1970 to 2015, as well as assessing gender representation in executive leadership and academic heads. My primary sources for student data were the Annual Yearbooks, and my primary sources for staff data were Annual Reports.  


My Findings 

My study showed me that RCSI has increased the percentage of women in its undergraduate medical class every year since 1970.  In 1970, women comprised 17.58% of the class, while men comprised 82.42%. By 2015, women made up 45.91%, and men 48.75%. In addition, every five years, throughout 1980 to 2015, executive leadership positions were predominantly held by men, except in 2010 and 2015 in which Women held the positions of President of RCSI and Dean of the Medical Faculty – respectively, Prof Eilis McGovern and Prof Hannah McGee. Overall, the data shows that in the student body population, women are increasing in percentage.  However when it comes to leadership positions, women were still in a minority in the period in question    

Comparisons with Today Using RCSI’s Institutional Profile 

I compared my historical data to the current data published in the 2023 RCSI Institutional Profile.2 In the Institutional Profile, the data from 2017 to 2023 tells us that female students make up more than 50% of the undergraduate population. In addition, in 2023, 66% of RCSI staff (Academic, Research Academic and Professional & Support Services) were female.2 It is great to see that many of the members of the staff are female. However, when looking at teaching staff, although females make up the majority of Lecturers and Senior Lecturers, only 32% of the professors are female.2 This highlights that although more women are in the field of medicine, the medical leadership positions don't reflect this trend. I noted that neither the historical nor the contemporary data made provision for individuals who identify as non-binary.  


Trailblazers from the Past 

It was interesting to learn about the trailblazing women who were the first to reach leadership positions at RCSI. Professor Eilis McGovern achieved a historic milestone in 1994 by becoming the first woman elected to the Council. This achievement gained added significance as she later ascended to the position of RCSI's inaugural female President in 2010. Equally noteworthy was the addition of Ms. Laura Viani to the Council in 2000. Her journey culminated in becoming the second woman to hold the presidency at RCSI in 2022. Among the pioneering women who held key department head roles at RCSI were Professor Ethna E. Gaffney (Chemistry and Physics, 1962 - 1987) and Professor Ellen C. Moorhouse (Microbiology, 1967 - 1987). Their accomplishments exemplify the strides made by women in the academic landscape during this transformative period.


Stories Behind the Statistics 

In the course of my research, I had the privilege of engaging in conversations with two distinguished RCSI alumni who graduated at either end of the period under discussion.  These were Professor Caroline De Costa (Class of 1973) and Dr Kelsey Martin (Class of 2010). Professor De Costa, boasts a remarkable career marked by women's activism and the groundbreaking achievement of becoming Australia's first female Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Her journey was particularly noteworthy as she navigated the challenges of medical school as a single mother, defying the gender norms of her time when most of her peers were men. In our interview, Professor De Costa reflected on her experience, highlighting the crucial support she received from both her classmates and professors. Notably, she expressed gratitude for the backing she received from the Dean, Dr Harry O’Flanagan, who actively assisted in locating resources to help her balance the demands of medical school and parenthood. In an era where male dominance prevailed in the medical profession, it was heartening to learn that Professor De Costa found a strong sense of community among her medical colleagues, defying the stereotypes of the time. 

Dr Kelsey Martin stands out not only for her impactful career as a hematologist and oncologist but also as a dedicated women's rights activist. As a student in the early 2000s, Dr Martin noticed a distinct lack of resources and initiatives aimed at promoting gender diversity. During our discussion of the contemporary medical workplace, she also emphasized the critical role of mentorship and sponsorship in fostering gender diversity. She highlighted the importance of guidance from women leaders and underscored the need for those in leadership positions to leverage their roles to advocate for and support other women.