Are we losing our boys in medicine?

“Medicine is not for boys.”

That’s what my 7 year old recently very emphatically told me. My son is not interested in becoming a doctor because it is for girls. He then suggested I discuss medicine with my 3-year-old daughter because she’s a girl.

My son instead prefers to be a fire fighter, soccer player, or superhero, or maybe a dentist because some boys still actually do that — but definitely not a doctor with clear disdain. He’s at the age where many boys don’t want to be associated with anything they feel is “for girls.”

In his 7-year-old boy world, being a doctor is up there with absolutely never wearing the color pink, never being caught playing with a doll, or having a girl as your real friend. All of these elements collectively define the child hood male “cootie factor.”  These are important issues in his 7-year-old world.

Among his young peers, you definitely don’t want to be a 7-year-old boy with cooties, clearly a terrible condition to have in his world.  Of course, the self-actualized parent in me staunchly believes this is antiquated, and restricting.  Of course, we spend plenty of time in our house breaking down these absolutes and stereotypes. But he’s only seven and does not quite get it yet — and that’s OK. He will understand how limiting those views are in time.  I did have to repeat for my own clarification: “You think medicine is for girls?”  His reply was a simple “Yep, completely girl stuff.”

I was floored and still reflect on this innocent conversation which was so profound for me.

The major cartoon character representing medicine of his childhood is Doc McStuffins. Doc McStuffins is smart, assertive, but definitely a girl. With the exception of just one or two his pediatricians have been female. He is being raised by a female physician — me, his own mom and knows many of my female physician friends.

In fact, on a national level current statistics reveal that approximately 60 percent of physicians are female. This maybe even higher in primary care medical specialties, family medicine, pediatrics, internal medicine, and even OB/GYN. Clearly, the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction, and that’s a good thing, but are we leaving our boys behind?

Part of me is celebrating this victory of feminism! The glass ceiling still exists, but women are constantly changing the landscape of certain professions like medicine where we were once shut out. We have normalized the concept of the female physician to such an extent that for kids in my son’s generation, a female physician is not a unicorn. There are still many challenges to overcome, equal pay for women, subspecialties in medicine that are still almost exclusively male, institutional discrimination/sexual harassment that women face in medicine even with our increasing presence in the field. These are ongoing battles we fight regularly.

However, in the midst of my happy dance, I pause to take a break. I am the mother of a young woman who I hope to inspire, and encourage that there are no limits but what about my son?

One would argue that society is created to encourage male success in most fields. This small dent we have made for gender equality in medicine is leveling the field. However, I felt sad to hear my son say that medicine wasn’t for him. In his 7-year-old candor what he told me is that he couldn’t see males like him reflected in the images of medicine around him. After that conversation, I felt I failed him in my pursuit of gender equity. As a mother of both a girl and boy, I want them both to reach their fullest potential. If medicine isn’t for my son, I want it to be because he didn’t want to do it: not due to new stereotypes. I realized I need to make a concerted effort now to swing the pendulum to the midline for both of my children.

After doing an informal poll in several of my social circles, I learned my son is not alone in this sentiment. Many young boys are feeling that medicine is for girls. African American boys, in particular, are being left behind. In a 2015 NPR article, they reported that there were fewer black men in medical school in 2014 than in 1978. Before we throw arrows at Disney and the Doc McStuffins movement, it is a great thing. There are plenty of boys who enjoyed that show.

However, it’s worth pondering if we are losing our boys in medicine and why that is. The field of medicine is strengthened by diversity of thought, life experience, gender, faith, and ethnicity. We must always remember that.

N. Bande Virgil is a pediatric hospitalist.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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