Recognizing female physicians

On National Women Physicians Day, female DOs reflect on women in medicine

Women in medicine have become a force to be reckoned with, but there’s still much work to be done, these DOs say.

Women have been involved in osteopathic medicine from the very beginning. In 1892, when A.T. Still, MD, DO, opened the first osteopathic medical school, the inaugural class of 21 students included six women, according to the Museum of Osteopathic Medicine.

Over the years, the number of female doctors has grown steadily. In the past 50 years, the growth has been exponential.

Within the osteopathic medical profession, the percentage of female graduates from DO schools rose from 2% in 1969 to 45% in 2019, according to the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine.

Five of the six women in the inaugural class of the first osteopathic medical school are shown in this class portrait circa 1892. (Photo provided by the Museum of Osteopathic Medicine)

Many women who have been a part of this historic growth have fought bias and sexism in the workplace as they found their place in the profession, says Hala Sabry, DO, an emergency physician who founded National Women Physicians Day (NWPD) on Feb. 3, 2016.

In addition to experiencing pay and equity discrepancies at work, many women also frequently encounter patients and medical staff who don’t believe they are doctors, notes Dr. Sabry, who also founded the Physician Moms Group, a forum where physicians who are mothers discuss these issues.

“Women have been doctors for over a hundred years,” Dr. Sabry says. “Not only do we deserve respect and recognition, but we also deserve equal pay and equity all around, with fair hiring and productivity practices. National Women Physicians Day represents a call for these things.”

Hala Sabry, DO

The AOA supports the adoption of policies to ensure equal pay for physicians regardless of gender. The organization has also advocated for respectful depictions of female physicians in the media.

Last fall, after an offensive ad from the medical apparel company FIGS went viral, the AOA intervened to address it. FIGS subsequently removed the ad and apologized to all female and osteopathic physicians. The company took many additional steps to make amends, including donating $100,000 to the AOA for diversity efforts and developing a concrete plan to support FIGS’ ongoing commitment to gender equity in medicine.

While much remains to be done to ensure equity for female physicians, countless numbers of women DOs have made significant progress by advocating for female physicians, mentoring them and serving in leadership roles in the profession. The sheer number of such female physicians is too high to possibly name them all here.

The DO spoke with Dr. Sabry and four other influential female DOs about what NWPD means to them, how they’ve supported women in medicine and their advice for women who are training or aspiring to be physicians.

The significance of NWPD

“I almost burst with pride when I notice it’s time again for National Women Physicians Day,” says Karen Nichols, DO, chair of the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) board of directors and the first female president of the AOA (2010-2011). “To have the opportunity to honor women for what we’re doing as physicians is a very, very happy, proud day.”

Karen Nichols, DO

A longtime advocate for women and trailblazer in the profession, Dr. Nichols notes that her efforts have spurred from a desire to pay it forward and a recognition of the benefits of diversity in medicine.

“Advocating for more women in medicine, because we bring a different perspective, has always been an emphasis of mine,” she says.

Barbara Ross-Lee, DO, the first Black woman to serve as dean of a U.S. medical school, says NWPD means, to her, that women have established a visible presence and a voice in health care.

“The fact that we have a significantly increased number of women physicians is unbelievably helpful,” says Dr. Ross-Lee, who is currently the president-elect of the American Osteopathic Foundation. “It’s not just one voice, it is a collection of voices. There is a presence now that is recognized.”

Barbara Ross-Lee, DO

While much work remains to be done—in particular, women remain underrepresented in health care leadership positions—Dr. Ross-Lee says the increase in women physicians has been great for patients.

“Women are a vulnerable population in the health care system, and we are starting to see better health outcomes for women,” she says.

Overcoming gender inequity issues in medicine

As the founder of the Physician Moms Group, Dr. Sabry often hears from women who encounter unfair treatment in the workplace. But she’s also experienced it herself. She shares the story of when she was passed over for an opportunity when she was a new mom.

“I was on maternity leave, and my boss at the time thought he was doing me a favor by not giving me that role because he thought it was going to be a lot of pressure for me,” she says. “Although his intentions were good, there was this question, what am I capable of, because I’m a new mom. Nobody thinks twice about what a new dad is capable of.”

Dr. Sabry spoke to her boss, who apologized and has subsequently supported Dr. Sabry unequivocally in the role. She notes that he took steps to make sure that parental leave was a comfortable experience for all physicians working for him, men and women.

“We noticed a social construct that needed to be changed, and then he just went to work, and I went to work, and he completely supported me in everything I did,” she says.

Dr. Nichols says that when she’s encountered gender-related challenges, she didn’t accept them.

“I have many stories of situations when my gender has been brought up, generally in a negative way, and I always move on forward,” she says. “If they aren’t pleased with that, that’s their problem, they’re going to miss out on an excellent physician.”

Early in her career, K. Kay Moody, DO, was advised not to use the name K. Kay Moody because it wasn’t professional. She was asked to go by Karolyn.

K. Kay Moody, DO

“My argument was that Douglas is Doug and Robert is Bob and T.J. is T.J.,” says Dr. Moody, an emergency physician who created the emDocs community for emergency medicine physicians. “When I see a patient, I’m Dr. Moody. Why can’t I go by the name that I’ve been using my whole life? I survived, and I’m K. Kay again. But I had never run into that type of discrimination before. I hate calling it that, but looking back, that’s what it was.”

Supporting women in medicine

As the first woman to serve in several leadership positions in the osteopathic medical profession, Dr. Nichols says she is most proud of now being in the position to mentor and support both female and male physicians and trainees.

“I teach a lot of leadership courses and workshops, because I made every mistake in the book and I know that’s how doctors do things,” she says. “We were taught, in our processes, to be a good physician, but that’s not always what works to be a good leader.”

As a senior advisor to Time’s Up Healthcare, Dr. Ross-Lee is part of a movement of professionals who are advocating for equal pay for all health care workers and raising awareness of the issue of sexual harassment in medicine.

“They have had an impact by aligning themselves with health care institutions to get the level of commitment that’s necessary for them to implement programming,” she says. “They want to involve all health care workers, not just physicians, in their efforts. Fundamentally, they see their time as being now.”

Barbara Walker, DO, was the first female physician to be deployed with the 82nd Airborne Division, an airborne infantry division of the U.S. Army. She traveled to Saudi Arabia with the division during the Gulf War and quickly became an advocate and ally for the female soldiers on the mission.

Dr. Walker says her experiences in medicine showed her the importance of also advocating for and supporting the female physicians who came after her.

Barbara Walker, DO

“I’ve tried to work with and mentor female students and residents,” she says. “I’ve seen a number of wonderful young women who have thrived.”

It’s vital that students and new physicians have an ally to turn to if they encounter sexual harassment, Dr. Walker notes.

“It can be a scary situation, but if people have a safe place to go, it’s immensely helpful,” she says.

Advice for today’s female medical students and premeds

There’s not any area in medicine where women can’t excel, says Dr. Walker.

“Don’t let barriers become a problem for you,” she says. “If you can’t go over the wall, go around it.”

Dr. Nichols advises women in medical school not to expect people to treat them differently, and also not to tolerate people treating them differently.

“One of my favorite quotes is: ‘respect. I don’t ask anything more, but I won’t accept anything less,’ ” she says.

Dr. Moody urges today’s female trainees to be themselves and celebrate what makes them unique.

“It should not matter what your gender, sexuality, height or personality is,” she says. “Medicine is big enough that we have room for differences and appreciation for those differences, and we need you to be you because you are a blessing. Hold on to yourself, your soul, and everything about you that makes you different and wonderful because the fabric of medicine needs to be this beautiful tapestry of differences.”

Related reading:

Correcting Wikipedia’s bias against women scientists

Women are almost twice as likely to choose primary care as men, study finds

1 comment

  1. As one of the earliest DO female general surgeons I appreciated the article about women mentors. I trained many wonderful talented young women and men and have watched a lot of positive changes but we still need to see more equity in leadership roles and pay.

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