Sexism in medicine is a public health issue

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Author.  President.  Teacher.  Doctor.  These are all gender-neutral words which happen to relate to a person’s profession.  However, I find it particularly interesting that while “doctor” is a gender-neutral word, the field of medicine is riddled with institutional sexism.

Let me begin by explaining that I am a military physician currently training to become a gastroenterologist.  If being the only woman in any room bothered me, my journey would imply that I am a sadomasochist.  But it’s still a hard pill to swallow when a program director asks me if I have children, a recruiter asks if I will be interested in part-time positions after I graduate, or a patient asks how a “little girl like you” chose such an indelicate field.

While I understand that inequalities and biases are within the threadwork of the human social experience, and not unique to medicine, it is safe to say that somewhere along the way, sexism became normalized in medicine.  Historically, hysterectomies were first performed, at times involuntarily, to cure hysteria, a once-common medical diagnosis reserved exclusively for women, which is no longer regarded as a medical diagnosis.  The behavior and actions of women were reduced to the sequelae of our reproductive organs for several hundreds of years.

Today, women make 78 cents for every dollar a man makes and female physicians earn up to $44,000 less than their male counterparts.  And the pay gap is only getting wider.  Females comprise 35 percent of the physician workforce and counting, but the medical hierarchy is still disproportionately dominated by men. The New York Times recently reported that full female professors are paid the same as male associate professors.  Which implies a larger problem; not just a pay gap, but rather, a value gap.  If the institution of medicine does not promote or pay our female physicians as much as we do our male physicians, how will we retain enough qualified professionals to meet the public need?  More importantly, what message does that send to the world about how much we value a significant constituency of our workforce?

This seems like a no-brainer to most of us.  So why are the problems getting worse, not better?  According to a study from the Journal of Human Capital, this is all due to social anthropology.  Young men value high earnings while young women value stability and flexibility, and this leads to wage inequality.  As an n of 1, I assure you, that I did not enter the field of medicine for its inherent flexibility.

Women are no longer a novelty in any workplace, let alone medicine, and thankfully so. But we have a long way to go in order to erase the institutional sexism within our profession.  Gender equality should be the new normal in medicine.  That begins with being treated as equals by our superiors and peers.  In many ways, the easiest solution is to start by fixing the wage gap and hope that social equality follows, but something tells me it won’t be so simple.

Physicians make many sacrifices to earn the opportunity to serve others.  The inherent sexism within medicine is not only immoral, but also a public health issue.  Isn’t it time to stand up for each other and remove gender inequality from the physician experience?  Let’s keep “doctor” not only gender-neutral but also gender-equal.

Lavanya Viswanathan is a gastroenterology fellow.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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