GLASS ceilings come in all shapes and sizes, as women are learning to their cost. When Jill Belch, professor of vascular medicine and honorary consultant at NHS Tayside, was named by the Saltire Society as one of Scotland’s “outstanding women”, she acknowledged the huge strides that have been made in her discipline. When she started, only 15 per cent of her colleagues were women. Today, that number is 60 per cent.

Peachy as this may sound, all is not as equitable on the wards, in GP surgeries, and especially in operating theatres, as you might expect. An assiduous promoter of gender equality, Professor Belch pointed out that despite the wealth of opportunities open to women in medicine, when it comes to the most prestigious areas, such as heart surgery, men are still top dog.

“These are jobs where you may be required to work from six in the morning to 11 at night,” she said, “and most women decided that they prefer to work part-time rather than commit to that.” Not that she blames them: “After all, we fought for their right to choose.”

Part-time employment is now the main obstacle in the campaign for women to be on a par with men. When a female doctor first hooks a stethoscope around her neck the future looks, if not precisely plain sailing, then navigable.

However, if at some point she starts a family, or has older relatives to care for, opting to work part-time creates an unsolvable quandary. You could call the shorter working week a woman’s wrecking ball, the destroyer of youthful aspirations.

Speak to thirtysomething medics, who started out intending to become heroic surgeons and physicians, and you will detect a weariness, and also a resignation to the fact that the conditions in which they are expected to perform are incompatible with any kind of normal life, let alone raising a family.

As a result, an essential tier of the health system voluntarily removes itself from the full-time rota. And while hospital-based medicine is undoubtedly at the extreme end of professional expectations, given the prolonged, intense and erratic shifts, what goes for medicine is also true of other careers: the advocate who must work into the small hours and over weekends to keep on top of her case load; the head teacher who is in the school before breakfast, and once back home works until bedtime; the farmer who labours every day of the year; the journalist who cannot clock off until the late-breaking story is filed.

No wonder people in these occupations wonder if they’ve been put on the rack, as they are slowly stretched to breaking point. Yet when doctors, and other high-fliers, decide to go part-time, it is a self-inflicted slow puncture. All the training, expertise and experience they have acquired, all the momentum they have gathered, begins to deflate. Friends and family feel secretly disappointed that a seemingly stellar career has lost its stardust. Worse, the part-timer often feels she is in some unfathomable way to blame for not being able to juggle everybody’s expectations, including her own, yet still have a life worth living.

By drawing attention to the part-time glass ceiling, Professor Belch highlights how complicated and protracted the business of reaching true equality remains. The effort to increase the number of women entering medical school, which was once seen as the solution to the predominance of males, succeeded years ago. Indeed, that hurdle has been so successfully overcome there are sometimes more girls in class than boys.

The problem is that, in the early years of feminism, none of us looked far enough ahead. Lacking imagination, perhaps, or brimming with optimism, we did not give a thought to the lifelong path – more accurately a tight-rope – on which working women must keep their balance. Once aloft, they need to stay upright not merely when they are young and full of energy, but as their lifestyles change, their commitments grow, and their attitudes mature.

Belch’s comments are a long overdue corrective to the notion that the ward – or boardroom, laboratory, lecture hall – is as welcoming for women as men. In so doing she has also pointed to the unrealistically tough regime in which many professionals are expected to survive. It’s not just women who have a family to raise, or other caring responsibilities, and it’s not just women who feel they must clone themselves in order to get through everything the working day – and the action-packed weekend – demands. Singletons, or those with partners but no children, can still find employers’ expectations excessive and debilitating. The dedication and single-eyed focus required to keep on top of the most responsible roles takes a toll on everyone.

Doubtless burn-out existed in Edwardian times, it just didn’t have a label. Today we have inherited a pitiless culture in which status is calculated by how visibly gruelling your job is. The more punishing your hours and the less time you have at home, the higher your place on the ladder of awe. The employee who can be home shortly after five, and has all evening in which to help their kids with homework or go to the gym, is unlikely to score impressively on the Richter scale of professional achievement. Yet she, or he, might have a really well thought-out life, with their priorities in the right order.

The dilemma facing society is not simply how to help part-time women reach the very top but how to recalibrate these Alpha workplaces. The challenge for employers who do not want talented staff to drift off or grow disheartened is to come up with ways to make these all-consuming roles desirable, but also manageable, for a far wider range of individuals.

At the moment, physical and psychological stamina are almost as essential as professional excellence for someone to thrive in such an environment. Yet how many does that automatically exclude? Instead of a place that resembles the trenches, we need to restructure hospitals, banks, or the courts, so that they properly value ambitious and able part-timers. Far from discriminating against their promotion, they should encourage it. A good place to start might be to banish the adjective “part-time”, and its belittling connotations, once and for all.