Paging Female Doctors 

by Sophie Dorf-Kamienny

A surgeon walks into a hospital with a lab coat and scrubs handy, ready to perform life-saving operations. Despite this surgeon being a woman, no one looks twice. One or two centuries ago, such a scenario would have seemed impossible, but not anymore.

Women in medicine have made countless strides towards equal treatment and recognition in their field. Although women first entered the field constrained to being midwives and nurses, they have more than demonstrated their ability to succeed in any field of their choosing.

According to a study done at the Harvard School of Public Health, female physicians are shown to have better patient outcomes than male doctors. “We estimate that approximately 32,000 fewer patients would die if male physicians could achieve the same outcomes as female physicians every year,” the study’s authors wrote.

However, despite the overwhelming proof that women possess no negative discrepancy in regards to capabilities, only about 34 percent of doctors in the United States in 2017 were women, as reported by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. There are a few possible answers as to why, but first and foremost, it’s important to look at how women were held back historically.

Not until Elizabeth Blackwell prevailed in 1849 was a woman accepted into a medical school in America. Even then, Blackwell was only admitted into Geneva Medical College, despite her expansive list of applications. According to the Smithsonian, no other colleges even considered her, and she was only accepted to Geneva following the student body’s so-called “joke” of unanimously voting to let Blackwell in. In the years following, Blackwell continued to face hurdles such as attempts by others to treat her more delicately than male students, specifically on the topic of reproductive studies, as she was once forced to defend her right to stay in attendance at a lecture on the subject. She went on to specialize in obstetrics and pediatrics in Europe; however, upon returning to practice in New York City, she found few patients willing to be treated by her.

It’s no wonder so many young girls feel discouraged from following the medical path, even in the 21st century. The legacy of such sexism lives on in the form of stereotypes and clichés. For example, the idea that women are too delicate or fragile for the hardcore sphere of surgery, or are made for nurturing rather than being assertive or ambitious.

Although there is much less stigma surrounding female doctors in the present day, it is indeed still prevalent, and data can demonstrate the extent of such stereotypes and discrimination. For example, according to a study by the Association of American Medical Colleagues, women comprise only one percent of all department chairs in the surgical field, and 21 percent of full-time medical professors. This is in spite of the fact that 47 percent of medical students are women. So, if we have broken down so many barriers in the past couple of centuries, what is causing the percent of female doctors to dwindle so much on the road from student to department head?

Despite an abundance of progress, women still face discrimination and discouragement due to their gender. For example, as with Blackwell’s case, female doctors may receive less work if patients are more trusting of or prefer male doctors. This can also apply to colleagues and bosses choosing not to promote or cooperate with female doctors simply because they possess gender-based superiority complexes.

Even worse, women are more likely to be sexually harassed in the workplace. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, 30 percent of successful female doctors are sexually harassed at some point in their career, compared to 4 percent of male doctors. Roughly half of these women reported being held back professionally as a result of such harassment.

In addition, busy female doctors face hardship when it comes to fulfilling expectations that they will take on the brunt of the responsibility in caring for one’s family. According to a study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, “[women] suffer role conflict in trying to be superdocs, superwives, and supermoms, and role strain in combining their multiple roles.” This is an extra obstacle for women in particular to overcome, as, unfortunately, men have traditionally taken over the working sphere while women were confined to the domestic sphere.

And on top of facing unbalanced expectations, women also face a discrepancy in pay. Wages for women in the medical field are significantly lower than those of their male colleagues. According to CNN, female physicians make a mere 74 cents to a man’s dollar. This is even lower  than the acknowledged 82 that female full-time workers in all fields receive on average. Women who manage to make their way through medical school and training whilst putting up with endless misogyny should not be additionally penalized in a financially straining way due to their gender.

Lastly, women are offered a shockingly small percentage of leadership roles in academic and workplace positions. As aforementioned, this discrepancy applies to department chairs, academic faculty, deans, and other leadership positions. The lack of opportunities offered to women may stem from many factors, including men that are hesitant to guide women into roles as their superiors, or the perception that women are too meek, but those who are assertive are too “bossy” or difficult.

However, countless women have paved the way for future generations in the field of medicine, and continue to trailblaze despite setbacks. Although it is important to acknowledge the obstacles women face in order to fight back against them, one should not be discouraged from pursuing this male-dominated field. Women have managed to integrate themselves into the workforce and dominate a plethora of other fields, including accounting and psychology, to name a few. If we continue to persist in the face of setbacks, there is no reason why we can’t come to lead the pack in medicine.