Women in medicine: A front line perspective

Think about your own experiences—you’re at a party or a restaurant, and someone you’re with says something obviously racist. You cringe, but given the setting, you can’t decide how to react; after a pause, you probably decide to say something. Now imagine you’re at meeting for work, and a senior partner says something racist. You want to say something, and you even know that under some circumstances there are laws behind you, but you don’t want to get branded a trouble maker and risk subtle (or not-so-subtle) discrimination.

Now imagine you are sitting in the doctors’ lounge, and a senior physician says that sending women to medical school is a bit of a waste. The people sitting around the table make decisions every day about who to accept and reject to medical schools and residency programs, who to hire, who to promote, but hey, it’s just a group of guys having a cup of coffee. How would you react?

In the early 1960′s, about 5% of medical American medical students were women. Now about half are. Women are first authors on more medical papers than ever, yet fill only about 11% of department chairs, and fill about 15% of full professorship positions.

What’s behind this?

There is literature studying the trends in academic and clinical medicine. I’ll point you to this reference in the New England Journal of Medicine as a starting point, but I’d like to give you a front-line perspective.

Something I hear every week is that women are likely to take time off for kids, and to work part-time, and that this somehow renders them less valuable. I’m not sure how this reasoning works. After all, doctors treat people of all ages, genders, and ethnicities, and doctors of different backgrounds often have different experiences and skills to bring to the table.

But I can see how some of these ideas are perpetuated. Slots in medical schools, residencies, and fellowships are quite limited, and it costs much more to create a doctor than tuition could ever cover. Some take a false utilitarian view that because it costs so much to create a doctor, only those who can give back the most in time and money should be trained.

Residencies are limited in both the number of residents they can take, and in how many hours these residents can work. When one becomes pregnant, it can burden the entire program (or so it’s perceived).

Well, this is the real world, and in the real world, half of us are women, and women are the ones who bear children. Also, the prime years for physician training are prime child-bearing years. Get used to it. If we think women have at least as much to offer as physicians as men, we better get used to the fact that they have “lady parts” and that this has real effects. Are we to limit the contributions women are allowed to make because a short period of their lives may or may not involve child-bearing?

In clinical medicine (as opposed to academic medicine), there seem to be many more opportunities to work part-time than in the past. The less you work, the less you get paid, but the pay is still pretty good. But academia is still about productivity, and gaps are not acceptable.

As a society and a profession, we have to decide to take the role of women seriously. If we demean women’s role in our profession, we may be more likely to demean our female patients and family members. And it’s just wrong.As a society and a profession, we have to decide to take the role of women seriously.

Things are getting better, but we still have a long way to go.

“PalMD” is an internal medicine physician who blogs at White Coat Underground.

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