I recently met through Zoom a group of medical residents taking a rare break from their busy schedules. As we discussed comparing their experiences with mine as a new doctor 35 years ago, I was surprised and alarmed. My young colleagues have told how overworked and overwhelmed I felt; how I developed a dangerous pregnancy complication because I was too afraid to ask for a reduction in my hours of service; how a man in my program informed me that I had been chosen to be a Chief Resident as a âsymbolic womanâ; how I had feared that any manifestation of weakness or emotion on my part would mark me as unworthy. Three decades after my residency, in 2021, as we mark the bicentennial of the birth of Elizabeth Blackwell, America’s first female medical school graduate, have we really made so little progress?
For the thousands of new female physicians starting an internship this month, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that there are more women in medicine than ever before. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, in 2017, more women than men entered medical school for the first time, and since 2019, women outnumber men overall. . In specialties such as obstetrics and gynecology and pediatrics, more than two-thirds of current residents are women. Even in traditionally male dominated fields such as orthopedic surgery, the percentage of female interns is increasing.
The bad news is that these numbers don’t translate into leadership positions. Professors of medical schools, presidents of hospitals and departments, and CEOs of health systems are still predominantly male to a large extent. Women belonging to minority groups are even less likely to occupy these prestigious positions. And it’s not that women haven’t had time to catch up. As a discouraged young female doctor recently asked on Twitter:
âIn 1993, 42% of incoming medical students were women. I was 8 years old. We’ve said it 1000 times, but I still wonder where all those years have been and where these women are now – why aren’t they my bosses! “
In 1993, 42% of incoming medical students were women. I was 8 years old. We’ve said it 1000 times, but I still wonder where all those years have been and where these women are now – why aren’t they my bosses!
– Allison Ruff (@AlliLRuff) April 9, 2021
Why indeed? Two studies conducted in recent years suggest that patients treated by female doctors may have better results than those treated by men. One showed that patients of female doctors are more likely to survive a heart attack and another showed that they are less likely to die or be readmitted within 30 days of hospitalization. According to a 2018 survey, nearly a third of Americans of both sexes, and almost half of women, prefer a female doctor, while just a quarter of men prefer a male doctor. It seems that women in medicine are thriving, but they are not.
Female doctors earn on average 20% less than our male colleagues; receive lower levels of funding for medical research; are appallingly exposed to harassment and verbal and physical abuse in the workplace; are more likely to report feeling exhausted; and are more at risk of dying by suicide than male doctors or women in general. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these inequalities. In an age when colorful banners proclaim the heroes of healthcare workers, female doctors feel more under siege than ever.
If more women entering medicine don’t create more equity, what will? Promoting more women to leadership positions would help, although this effort needs to be accompanied by policies addressing harassment, child care, family leave, physician mental health and the gap. of remuneration between male and female doctors. Even the most ambitious and intensely supervised woman will not rise through the ranks of medicine if she is harassed, exhausted, underpaid, and without support at home.
For women physicians to achieve equality, we need not only new policies, but also a new story.
Traditional gender stereotypes remain deeply rooted in medicine. Social media has been surprisingly effective in helping dismantle them. A Twitter hashtag, #lookslikeasurgeon, gained traction when a New Yorker cover cartoon showing four women performing surgery was reconstructed by female surgeons from all over the world. Last year, after an article in a medical journal criticized female surgical residents for their “unprofessional” behavior such as posting pictures of themselves in swimsuits on their personal media accounts social, a powerful protest campaign swept the Internet. Thousands of female doctors (and some men) posted pictures of themselves in swimsuits with the hashtag #medbikini, causing the authors of the article to retract. An Instagram post #medbikini showed a doctor in a red bikini administering emergency first aid. She had jumped out of her beach blanket to rescue a swimmer who had been hit by a boat.
Residents I have met have asked me to come back for another session in the future. I’m flattered but, honestly, I would prefer my younger colleagues to think of me as a dinosaur, my accounts of sexism in medicine being as irrelevant to them as the ether.
Dr. Suzanne Koven is a primary care physician and the first writer-in-residence at Massachusetts General Hospital. She is the author of “Letter to a young female doctor. “