The only girl in the room: how paradigmatic trajectories deter female students from surgical careers

Med Educ. 2013 Jun;47(6):547-56. doi: 10.1111/medu.12134.


Objectives: Over 60% of UK medical students are female, yet only 33% of applicants to surgical training are women. Role modelling, differing educational experiences and disidentification in female medical students have been implicated in this disparity. We are yet to fully understand the mechanisms that link students' experiences with national trends in career choices. We employ a hitherto unused concept from the theory of communities of practice: paradigmatic trajectories. These are visible career paths provided by a community and are cited by Wenger as potentially the most influential factors shaping the learning of newcomers. We pioneer the use of this theoretical tool in answering the research question: How do paradigmatic trajectories shape female medical students' experiences of surgery and subsequent career intentions?

Methods: This qualitative study comprised a secondary analysis of data sourced from 19 clinical medical students. During individual, in-depth, semi-structured interviews, we explored these students' experiences at medical school. We carried out thematic analysis using sensitising concepts from communities of practice theory, notably that of 'paradigmatic trajectories'.

Results: Female students' experiences of surgery were strongly gendered; they were positioned as 'other' in the surgical domain. Four key processes--seeing, hearing, doing and imagining--facilitated the formation of paradigmatic trajectories, on which students could draw when making career decisions. Female students were unable to see or identify with other women in surgery. They heard about challenges to being a female surgeon, lacked experiences of participation, and struggled to imagine a future in which they would be successful surgeons. Thus, based on paradigmatic trajectories constructed from exposure to surgery, they self-selected out of surgical careers. By contrast, male students had experiences of 'hands-in' participation and were not marginalised by paradigmatic trajectories.

Conclusions: The concept of the paradigmatic trajectory is a useful theoretical tool with which to understand how students' experiences shape career decisions. Paradigmatic trajectories within surgery deter female students from embarking on careers in surgery.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Attitude of Health Personnel*
  • Career Choice*
  • Community Networks*
  • Education, Medical*
  • England
  • Female
  • Gender Identity
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Qualitative Research
  • Role
  • Sex Factors
  • Sexism
  • Specialties, Surgical / education*
  • Stereotyping
  • Students, Medical / psychology*