This year—2018— is looking to be the year of the woman. In the last few months there have been several groundbreaking movements that have propelled women into the spotlight. The #TimesUp and #MeToo movements recently harnessed the collective voice of women who have suffered in silence for too long, revealing the frequency of sexual harassment, systemic sexism and exposing the severity of these widespread issues. Following the tremendous momentum of these social media movements, on Jan. 20 the Women’s March drew massive crowds nationally one year after the initial protest.
Women in medicine are organizing as well. Medicine has historically been a field dominated by men, particularly for physicians. Gender discrimination and blatant sexism aside, women in medical professions face a number of unique obstacles that make the field unwelcoming to them. A recent study of young physician-researchers revealed that women spend 8.5 more hours per week on domestic and parenting activities than men after adjustments for work hours, spousal employment, and other factors. A Medicare B fee-for-service reimbursement analysis revealed that female providers overall earn $18,677 less than their male counterparts, despite another study showing that patients cared for by female physicians have better health outcomes.
The predominance of males in physician roles historically has been at odds with the concept of gender parity, but today we are witnessing a generational transition as greater numbers of females than ever before are pursuing medical degrees and leadership roles in physician spaces. For the first time in history, the female medical school matriculation rates surpassed 50%, to 50.7%.
Last week marked the 3rd annual National Women Physicians Day, a day devoted to celebrating female physicians everywhere on the most symbolic of dates: Feb. 3, the birthday of Dr. Elisabeth Blackwell, the first female MD in America. Interestingly, when Dr. Andrew Taylor Still established the first osteopathic medical school in 1892, women were allowed to enroll and its first class proudly graduated five women.
It’s encouraging to see such progress; however, our work here is far from done. It is imperative that we continue having discussions about gender in medicine in order to create a collaborative environment. In an article titled “You’re Too Small to be a Surgeon and Other Things Women in Medicine Hear”, student doctor Jamie Katuna describes several anecdotes, including the story of a male medical student who frequently is mistaken for the attending physician, despite his female attending wearing a long white coat with MD clearly embroidered upon it. Katuna poses an important question, one that reveals the extent of this all-too-common issue: “is there a female attending physician out there who has not had this experience?”
The answer, sadly, is probably not. However, incidents of gender discrimination are hopefully becoming less frequent. Personally, I haven’t had it happen in the last few years. I am fortunate to work at a large academic center with many young physicians, reflecting a more balanced demographic of age, gender and race. My neurosurgical critical care service consists of three female attendings out of four. My pulmonary critical care department is 40% female attendings, reflecting a higher percentage than the national average of female critical care physicians. Sure, we still have a lot of work to do, but it is also worth taking a moment to appreciate just how far we women physicians have come.
So here’s to us. To our progress. To know what generations of strong female physicians have endured before us and to still persevere despite all the challenges. To know that we are improving, slowly but surely. To know that our children will continue to pave the way for gender equality. Lastly, to know that there is still much work to be done and discussions about equal opportunity to be had.