One common question I often get asked by high schoolers and pre-med students is- ‘what it’s like to be a doctor, especially a female doctor. They’re apprehensive if they should be pursuing years of education and rigorous training. They ask me what my average day looks like, if I have time for my family and friends, and if I have a hobby or a life outside of work. They want to know –
What does it mean to be a woman in medicine in 2022?
Is it worth it?
When bombarded with these questions, I struggle with the answers. I want to keep the conversation honest and open as much as possible but at the same time, I don’t want to deter their aspirations. I truly love my job as a physician, and I wake up every day excited and inspired to go to work. But I also know the price I paid to get here and what lies ahead for me and women physicians like me.
During medical school, I missed out on heavily being under the guidance of a mentor. Female medical students and physicians often admit having to struggle to find a mentor for themselves. Now I want to be the person I never had since I know what it means to tread on this treacherous up without a mentor. I want to be there for those who need me and maybe help these young women navigate the uncertainties and challenge better by sharing my experiences and having an honest conversation with them.
In 1848, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first-ever woman in the United States to earn an MD degree. Fast forward 172 years. More women are entering the field of medicine, now more than ever. Women are taking up leadership spaces in both academic and clinical medicine, and participating in research and innovation at a larger extent. The future of medicine looks bright. But is it devoid of challenges? The answer is no.
What are the challenges facing women in medicine today?
Imagine stepping into a patient’s room in a white coat, post 10+ years of rigorous training and education, only to have your patient ask, “When will the doctor see me?” This is a sad reality for many female physicians, even in 2021. Patient sexism is still rampant and they continue to mistake female physicians for a nurse or a non-physician staff member.
Every time a patient tries to seek a second opinion from a male doctor, my self-doubts start roaring in. This self-doubt often called the “imposter syndrome,” is not unique to women. I have been haunted at every step of my career by the fear that maybe I am not enough and at times, I am my own worst critic.
Cultural Gender Stereotypes
When I was a medical student, I was often told that because I was a woman, I should not pursue surgery, as surgery was considered a very male-dominated field. There is a growing number of women pursuing surgical specialties today but surgery is still very much a boy’s club. One of the many factors that largely influences the choice of specialty by women is a “stereotype-based cognitive bias “. Cultural gender stereotypes continue to label women as kind, dependent, and nurturing while men as logical, independent, and assertive. As a result, women are more likely to pursue communal specialties like family medicine, pediatrics, and internal medicine, while men are more likely to go into surgical specialties. Female physicians are also deemed incompetent to take over leadership roles owing to these stereotypical gender-based traits and their medical careers do not advance at the same rate as men despite beginning their careers at the same time.
Pay Gap, Grants/Awards, and Authorship
There is also the issue of significant pay disparity. On average, female physicians earn $20,000 less per year than their male colleagues. These pay gaps are even higher when evaluating more male-dominated fields. Despite being likely to be paid less, women physicians are often excluded from medical society awards and are more likely to have their grants rejected. In a recent study, women physicians were found to be underrepresented among editor-in-chief of leading medical journals as well as less likely to be a primary author on a manuscript.
Sexual harassment is not uncommon among female medical students and physicians. Women physicians report being subjected to sexual harassment and abuse by their colleagues as well as their patients. Such harassment can take the form of inappropriate sexual advances, sexist jokes, other verbal or physical misconduct.
Maternal Wall Bias
Women physicians are often faced with a binary choice between career and family. More often than not, the choice to get pregnant or take maternity leaves by them makes people question their competence known as the ‘maternal wall bias’. It has not only affected their choice of specialties but also questioned their abilities to take on leadership roles.
The obstacles for women in medicine in 2021 may not be as daunting as it was in 1858; however, challenges remain. Additionally, women physicians of color and those dealing with disabilities encounter additional hurdles.
What are the ways forward?
Addressing the challenges and removing the barriers to women in medicine will require initiatives at the individual and institutional levels. It starts by introspecting and confronting our own internal biases around gender roles. The norms around how people perceive the role of women within society must change. We need more women at the top because people at the top need to represent the population that they serve. Hence, representation matters.
Similarly, mentorship matters. We need to create more opportunities to pair medical students with female mentors and provide them with better networking opportunities. The financial and structural barriers that widen the wage gap must be addressed. We need policies that support zero-tolerance for workplace sexual harassment and abuse. We need more programs that facilitate grants and sponsorships for women. Strong family-friendly policies like paid maternity leaves and parental leave policies need to be put in place so that women physicians are not left with a choice to make between being a physician or a homemaker.
On the brighter side, medicine is equally rewarding as much as it is challenging. The work I do is meaningful- it makes a difference in someone else’s life, which is why every day I go to bed happy and wake up excited to go to work.
Women bring a different side to medicine and diversity is optimal if we want our community of medicine to thrive.
We ought to recognize all the women physicians, residents, and medical students working to improve the quality of healthcare and make it more equitable, and accessible.
There are days when you will feel like a minority, minuscule in the face of challenges, and days when you will have to work harder to prove yourself. Some days you might have to speak louder to make yourself heard and fight a little harder to just feel included or even promoted. But if you keep doing good work, fighting the good fight, it will all be worth it in the end.
There has never been a more exciting time to be a woman in medicine. With more and more women joining medicine, defying stereotypes, challenging biases, shattering glass ceilings, and changing the narrative, the future of medicine looks promising. Women are redefining the way medicine is being practiced and I cannot wait to see the type of change this and forth-coming generations will make.