For the increasing number of female consultants, research this week that concludes they are less productive than their male counterparts is likely to make them bristle.

As women continue to battle to break through the glass ceiling, often juggling the competing demands of work and family commitments, the last thing they need is any suggestion that they are not working as hard as men. While sexism is publicly unacceptable, it nevertheless persists in some quarters, and fuel to the fire is demoralising.

What the research does not do is offer an explanation of why female consultants may be less productive. The academics stress that they have measured only the number of patients treated by consultants and found that women see fewer.

They speculate that their findings could be a result of women taking more time with each patient, communicating differently or being "more meticulous, comprehensive and holistic". While this may soften the blow for female consultants, offering a conscience-salving explanation for their lower productivity, it has a whiff of a gender-based "excuse" for women's lower work rate. Men, too, will take umbrage at the suggestion that they are seeing more patients, but barely speaking to them.

As patient-reported outcomes are given greater prominence, it may become possible to make an assessment of productivity that includes both quantity and quality, which would be invaluable.

More research is vital. This week's study warns that as more women enter the medical workforce, the "feminisation" of the profession could lead to reduced NHS productivity in the longer term.

This is an issue that workforce planners must pay greater attention to, looking at how people are working as well as what jobs they are doing. The wider NHS should take note too: if lower productivity is a result of childcare commitments, for example, the move towards greater workplace flexibility for all parents could mean this will be an issue for both sexes.

Medical and NHS training programmes, finance directors and policy makers should all pay attention: this is more than a men are from Mars, women are from Venus dichotomy.

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