It’s time for women in medicine to get their moonshot

This year, the world reflected on the 50th anniversary of the historic Apollo 11 mission to the moon. The achievement was extraordinary for many reasons, not the least of which was the sheer tenacity and imagination required for thousands of scientists, researchers, dreamers, and doers to roll up their sleeves and accomplish what seemed impossible. Whatever doubts may have existed — and surely, there were setbacks — the scientific community was undeterred.

What’s especially remarkable was that just a decade had lapsed between the founding of NASA and the moment Buzz Aldrin’s boots touched the surface of the moon.

For those of us in the medical, scientific, and research communities, pursuits like these are wired into our work and collective psyche. We chase the audacious, believing we can decode the human genome, fix a fractured bone, and cure disease. What’s more — we do.

After celebrating Women Physicians Month, it’s time to call on leaders within the field to apply the same rigor and resolve to seize our own metaphorical moon: gender parity in health care.

For decades, sexism has gone unchecked in health care — from the 59 percent of women residents who experience harassment, to the less than 16 percent of women who make it into leadership roles and a pay gap of more than $50,000 when they finally do make it. And yet, for all the increased attention on issues of parity, investment, and return on investment thus far inequity is tepid and ad hoc at best.

Certainly, there is powerful and important work happening on campuses and in clinics nationwide. New women’s leadership programs, scholarships for women, research into gender equity, raised awareness, mandatory training in sexism, and bias. These endeavors are critical — and woefully under-resourced.

We can do better.

Our bold, action-oriented investment in women’s advancement is about more than doing what’s right by women; it’s about accelerating scientific discovery. By taking the same approach to ushering in gender equity as we have to addressing disease epidemics, we can create working environments that are inclusive, physically and psychologically safe and welcoming of the diverse ideas and necessary failures that move science and health care forward. When more than half of our matriculating medical students are women, by not fixing a system that creates barriers for half our future physicians, we are not cultivating our best and brightest minds.

The challenges women face in medicine are not indicative of their drive, intelligence or ambition; they are indicative of a systemic problem of an antiquated system that does not take into account half of our trainees, and half of our population. We are scientists, and we treat systemic illness with interventions that treat the problem, eradicate the illness, and cure the patient. We must apply the same process for gender parity in health care. We must treat gender equity as a systemic problem and develop and implement interventions that treat the system and fix the problem.

Achieving parity is essential, not only because it is the ethical and right thing to do, but it is also what is best for our patients. Data shows that patients who receive care by clinicians who “look like them” fare better in patient outcomes and adherence. History has repeatedly shown, women’s health care improves when women advance in academic medicine, and many movements to improve women’s health were led by women. Surely if we cannot do this for ourselves, then let’s do it for those we serve.

Like the NASA moonshot, we believe we can make measurable progress in just a decade. Building on the work of individuals and institutions nationwide, we can bring together numerous isolated efforts under one central umbrella to share resources and metrics, establish a national baseline, hold our leadership accountable, and build a powerful community committed to gender parity in our lifetimes.

Science offers effective approaches and deep insight into meaningful behavior change. Let’s tap into that reservoir of wisdom to create a movement grounded in science and unapologetic in its quest for real and measurable change.

John F. Kennedy said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade… not because [it’s] easy, but because [it’s] hard.”

Women: This is our moment.

Shikha Jain is a hematology-oncology physician. Sheila Dugan is a physical medicine and rehabilitation physician.

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