The gender gap persists in medicine. What can we do about it?

On February 3, 2016, many physicians on social media took a moment to celebrate the first ever National Women Physician, timed to coincide with the 195th anniversary of the birthday of pioneer, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell.

I began the day with a Facebook post wishing all my fellow women physician friends and colleagues a happy #nwpd and adding, “May today be the last day someone says to any of us ‘you look too young to be a doctor’ while we are standing next to male colleagues a decade younger than us.” This comment started a conversation that lasted all day, with female physicians lamenting the gender inequalities, large and small, they face daily at work, from to being constantly confused for nurses to being addressed as “Ms.” instead of “Doctor” by patients.

Most surprising to me, however, were the comments by other women physicians to the effect of, “I wish people thought I looked too young to be a doctor,” which led to me to reflect on just how far we have to go despite all of the progress women in medicine have made since the time of Dr. Blackwell.

It’s clear that we live in a society where youth is valued, and youthful appearance revered, however, this is an entirely different topic than the one my comment was meant to address in a tongue-in-cheek manner. While I may look younger than my 35 years, I’ve been a physician for ten years and by no means look younger than 25 years old. And yet the fact remains that not a week has passed in my career as a pediatrician where I don’t hear that I look too young to be a doctor while my male colleagues of the same age are rarely at the receiving end of this sentiment. Why?

I believe this speaks to a facet of the glass ceiling that women in all professions continue to face. It’s no longer the case that you can’t be a doctor, lawyer, or senator because you are a woman. However, you must work harder and longer than male counterparts to achieve career milestones. This makes a woman’s success at a young age so surprising it seems worthy of comment. The gender bias of these comments is even lost on fellow women physicians.

It’s clear from recent data that even as medical schools and residency programs reach nearly equal proportions of men and women, gender inequality persists in positions of power and seniority within the medical field. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, only 21 percent of full professors and 22 percent of tenured professors are women. Additionally, only 15 percent of department chairs and 16 percent of deans are women. Furthermore, medicine is not immune to the gender pay gap experienced in nearly all professions. Multiple studies that control for specialty, geography, age, and hours worked still conclude that women physicians earn thousands of dollars less per year than their male counterparts.

So why does this gender gap persist on many levels in medicine and what can we do about it? I came across an article about the research of Professor Michelle Ryan shortly after the gender-based explosion on my Facebook page and found that so much of what she discovered rings true in the profession of medicine. Ryan, who coined the term “glass cliff” with her earlier research about women in professional positions of power, now finds that women start off their careers just as ambitious as their male counterparts, however, their ambition tends to wane over time as they face the daily struggles women are subjected to in the workplace.

In addition, they lack mentors and role models to assist with overcoming these obstacles and furthering their careers. In a world where many believe that women abandon ambitious careers by choice to care for their families, this suggests that many are actually not choosing this option, but instead defaulting to it because the uphill battle to advance in the workplace as a woman is so frustrating.

Much of what has been written about how women in any profession can overcome barriers, such as lack of role models and mentors, has focused on encouraging women to press on, not give up, and work all the harder to overcome adversity. On one hand, I find the nature of this advice to be valid and helpful. Professor Ryan even suggests seeking out a senior male mentor with a daughter entering the workplace, as this group has been shown to take more interest in mentoring young women. On the other hand, it focuses entirely on forcing those who are subject to gendered bias to fix the problems themselves, rather than approaching the problem and the system from the top down.

Therefore, I would like to suggest to my male colleagues in the field of medicine that they consider actively seeking out a female physician to mentor. I was so lucky to have an amazing program director as a pediatric resident who recognized my leadership capabilities. He offered me a position as a chief resident, during which I learned invaluable management, organizational, and communication skills from him. I have also had the incredible experience of working under a female department chair who actively mentored me to achieve successes and career goals that would not have been possible without her.

While I did not seek out these role models, my career has benefited exponentially from their influence. If more selfless leaders like the ones I’ve had the good fortune to work with in my career reach out to ambitious women physicians, perhaps we can tap into otherwise underutilized potential instead of allowing it to be squandered over the years because of frustrations with system flaws. This will not only benefit women physicians, but also the patients they serve, as studies suggest women physicians are more likely to work with underserved populations and are also being sought out by women patients. By actively fostering the talents of women physicians, we can continue to honor the great work of Dr. Blackwell and work towards the achievement of gender equality in medicine.

Morgan Leafe is a pediatric hospitalist. 

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