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Open Access Open Badges Research article

Medical students' perceptions in relation to ethnicity and gender: a qualitative study

Heidi Lempp1* and Clive Seale2

Author Affiliations

1 Academic Department of Rheumatology, King's College London School of Medicine at Guy's, King's College and St. Thomas' Hospitals, Weston Education Centre, Cutcombe Road, London SE5 9PJ, UK

2 School of Social Sciences and Law, Brunel University Uxbridge, Middlesex, UB8 3PH, UK

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BMC Medical Education 2006, 6:17  doi:10.1186/1472-6920-6-17

Published: 8 March 2006



The British medical student population has undergone rapid diversification over the last decades. This study focuses on medical students' views about their experiences in relation to ethnicity and gender during their undergraduate training within the context of the hidden curriculum in one British medical school as part of a wider qualitative research project into undergraduate medical education.


We interviewed 36 undergraduate medical students in one British Medical School, across all five years of training using a semi-structured interview schedule. We selected them by random and quota sampling, stratified by sex and ethnicity and used the whole medical school population as a sampling frame. Data analyses involved the identification of common themes, reported by means of illustrative quotations and simple counts.


The students provided information about variations patterned by gender in their motivation and influences when deciding to study medicine. Issues in relation to ethnicity were: gaining independence from parents, perceived limitations to career prospects, incompatibility of some religious beliefs with some medical practices and acquired open-mindedness towards students and patients from different ethnic backgrounds. Despite claiming no experiences of gender difference during medical training, female and male students expressed gender stereotypes, e.g. that women bring particularly caring and sympathetic attitudes to medicine, or that surgery requires the physical strength and competitiveness stereotypically associated with men that are likely to support the continuation of gender differentiation in medical careers.


The key themes identified in this paper in relation to ethnicity and to gender have important implications for medical educators and for those concerned with professional development. The results suggest a need to open up aspects of these relatively covert elements of student culture to scrutiny and debate and to take an explicitly wider view of the influence of what has sometimes been called the hidden curriculum upon the training of medical professionals and the practice of medicine.