Girls in scrubs: An ethnographic exploration of the clinical learning environment

Shalini Gupta*, Stella Howden, Mandy Moffat, Lindsey Pope, Cate Kennedy

*Corresponding author for this work

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    Gender bias is an enduring issue in the medical profession despite women being more represented within medical schools and the health care workforce in numerous countries across the world. There have been frequent calls for further exploration of gender-based discriminations within medical education, owing to its lasting impact on student's professional development and career trajectories. This paper presents an ethnographic exploration of the experiences of female medical students and doctors in the clinical learning environment (CLE), aiming to disrupt the cycle of gender inequity in the clinical workplace.

    Our research field involved two teaching wards in a Scottish urban hospital, where 120 h of non-participant observations were conducted over 10 months. Combining purposive and convenience sampling, we conducted 36 individual interviews with key informants, which included medical students, foundation doctors, postgraduate trainees, consultant supervisors, and other health care professionals such as nurses and pharmacists. Data was thematically analysed using Bourdieu's theory of social power reproduction. The research team brought diverse professional backgrounds and perspectives to the exploration of data on gendered encounters.

    Combining the observational and interview data, five themes were generated, which suggested gender-related differentials in social and cultural capital that the participants acquired in the CLE. Experiences of discriminatory behaviour and stereotypical thought processes impacted the female students' engagement and drive towards learning, implying an adverse influence on habitus. In contrast, the valuable influence of gendered role-models in building confidence and self-efficacy signified a positive transformation of habitus. The research participants displayed considerable internalisation of the gendered processes in the CLE that appeared to be linked to the transient nature of clinical placements.

    This research reveals that despite constituting the majority demographic of medical school, female students struggle to gain social and cultural capital. Gendered hierarchies that structure clinical workplaces disadvantage female students and doctors, and the differential experiences transform their habitus. Based on our theoretically informed investigation, we advocate for role-models given their positive impact on students' and doctors' habitus. Additionally, medical educators may consider extended clinical placements that provide opportunities for female students and early-career doctors to secure social and cultural capital through integrating better in health care teams and building meaningful interprofessional relationships.
    Original languageEnglish
    JournalMedical Education
    Early online date6 Apr 2024
    Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 6 Apr 2024

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Education


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