We should all celebrate Women Physicians!
"For what is done or learned by one class of women becomes, by virtue of their common womanhood, the property of all women."
Elizabeth Blackwell was born 200 years ago today. In her lifetime she would become the first woman to be trained as a physician in the United States after a difficult journey across the sea from England. Dr. Blackwell opened the door for the rest of us, but the path we follow remains arduous, littered with obstacles and setbacks.
I entered medical school in 1998, and my class was the first entering class to reach 50% men and women. At that time, I was very naive about our position in medicine. My disillusionment was forthcoming. I recall while on my surgery rotation during my third year of medical school, I was taking care of a patient who had a pancreatic tumor. I would arrive at the hospital daily at 4 am to examine him. I checked in on him several times during the days too, leading up to his big surgery. I got to know him very well and worked diligently on his behalf. He was to have a Whipple procedure, which is a complicated surgical procedure that was a big deal for a medical student to scrub in on. I was so excited to scrub in on his case. When I arrived, I found out that the other two medical students on rotation with me (both men) would also be scrubbing in, which made sense since it was such a big learning case. Imagine my dismay when the attending surgeon offered the stool next to his, and the opportunity to open and be his right-hand man, to one of my male colleagues. I was pushed to the back. I was too shocked to say anything. The student, for his part, did not speak up for me, even though he knew as well as the surgeon and the other student and residents there, that it was "my" patient. This had nothing to do with skill nor knowledge. Of the three of us, I had the highest marks in the rotation. In fact, I left that rotation with clinical high honors.
This experience, unfortunately, was one reason I chose not to match in a surgical field. I did not feel like I wanted to, or was capable of, fighting against this type of unfairness for my whole career. These days, I am so impressed by my female colleagues and the #ILookLikeASurgeon social media campaign. If that had been around when I was a medical student, I may have decided differently.
Facts about Women Physicians
We currently comprise over a third of the healthcare workforce
We receive less pay than male colleagues for matched work
We are offered jobs and promoted to leadership positions less often than our male colleagues
Our patients have lower mortality and better health outcomes than those treated by male colleagues (https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/2593255)
We manage our careers while also managing our households and children, a fact that has not been shown to affect our productivity but often counts against us
Black and other ethnic minority female physicians face additional barriers and inequities
How can we support women in medicine?
We can all support women physicians by recognizing our implicit bias against women in this role. Have you ever seen a woman in scrubs in any setting and assumed she is a nurse? That is a common example of implicit bias. Have you seen a man in scrubs or a long white coat in the hospital and assumed he is a doctor? This too is bias. The man could easily be a nurse just as the woman could be a surgeon. Try to recognize when you make these assumptions. Do not assume a person of color is not a physician or other highly educated expert.
Women physicians are more likely to be addressed casually by their first name rather than their title. Male physicians almost never have this problem. It is disrespectful not to address a physician by her title. Always address a woman physician by "Doctor" unless she requests differently. This is true both in the clinical setting as well as at conferences and professional meetings.
Young girls who show interest in careers in medicine often experience negative responses. They are told that they will not be able to have both a career and a family. This is false. Many of us, quite successfully, have both. Girls who take an interest in medicine should be encouraged. The truth is having a family and have a satisfying and successful career as a physician are not mutually exclusive.
If you are a woman in medicine, mentor other women in medicine, and women of color. Show them what is possible. "I know the way, and I will light it for others"!
If you are a male physician, stand up for women in medicine. Stand up for equal pay, equal hiring, equal promotion. Both men and women show bias against women in medicine. Speak up when you see it in the workplace! Do not be a complicit observer. When I think back to what happened in the operating room so many years ago, what hurts the most is that my friend, my fellow medical student, did not stand up for me.
We have made many steps forward since Elizabeth Blackwell's birth 200 years ago, but we have a long way to go.
Thank a Women Physician today! She has, undoubtedly, been through a lot to be where she is now!