Female physicians today make up 48% of the physician community, a number that has increased from just 5% in 1952. While this is a drastic and important improvement, data continues to show that women hold fewer leadership roles in medicine than ever before.
Dr. Jennifer Joe, founder of Medstro and Editor-in-Chief of MedTech Boston, believes that starting a conversation about women in healthcare is incredibly important, which is why Medstro and the NEJM Group have launched an open forum discussion asking female physicians some key questions: Why do fewer female physician hold leadership positions? Is this a good or bad thing? How do we create change?
As part one of the six-part discussion draws to a close, we’ve rounded up 10 of the most quotable moments from the conversation, which has ranged from comments on the “old boys club” to negotiating equal pay.
“We see what we are accustomed to seeing, and what most closely reflects who we are. As a female orthopaedic surgeon, it is not unusual for me to the only female in a committee meeting. However, when I bring that up (typically with the non-threatening question of “Were the other female members of the committee not going to be able to attend?”) to the male members of the committee, this is first time that they recognize that I am the only female. They see what they are accustomed to seeing: men in orthopaedics. The lack of females isn’t even anything that registers with them.”
“Transparency and identifying standards are key. Many institutions lack transparency, and people are often uncomfortable about asking their colleagues. A few years ago, a former colleague asked me if I thought she should ask for a raise. I found out she was making almost $70,000 less than I was, even though we had been practicing for the same amount of time! I helped her put a proposal together, which was immediately accepted. That told us both she should have asked for more.”
“I would recommend that women in medicine become involved in organizations and seek opportunities for involvement early in their careers. Unfortunately, many assume (as did I) that we can become involved and take advantage of those opportunities later in our careers. This is understandable, as getting your practice started takes time and effort. However, that turns out to be the problem- you become so involved with the immediate issues in your career, that opportunities for involvement and leadership get put on the back burner and frequently never come to fruition.”
“As a medical student, I frequently get referred to by patients as their nurse. While I am not necessarily “offended,” as nurses play a important role in patient care, it underscores this inherent gender bias that if a young woman walks into the room, she is likely not the doctor or doctor-in-training. Changing any inherent bias takes time. It’s important for us not to passively accept the subtle gender discrimination. But we don’t have to respond in an angry or antagonizing way. Each time, I just politely remind my patients, ‘I’m not your nurse, but one of the medical students taking care of you. Would you like me to ask your nurse to stop by, or can I answer a question for you?'”
“Some women have a hard time relinquishing control of [chores and childcare] even when they have a willing partner, because they want quality control. Resist this perfection impulse! More and more we are seeing men becoming equal partners in the home, and when this happens, everyone wins – men, women, children, and society. If you have the means to pay for help – write that check and outsource chores! For each individual, making decisions about priorities at vulnerable points in your career, such as when you have young children, is crucial. You can have it all, you just cant have it all at once!”
“Slow promotion rates ultimately affect women’s candidacy to take on leaderhsip positions later in their academic career. And when they do, women often take less presigious leadership positions but perform more of the work. Women make up 46% of assistant deans, but only 33% of senior associate deans, 24% of division heads and 15% of department chairs.”
“I trained in orthopedic surgery during the late 1980s and early 1990s. I was the first woman in my training program. The interview, itself, was interesting, with several faculty spending time discussing amongst themselves the pros and cons of having a woman in the program. The majority of the bias that I experienced some overt and some implicit, was from nursing staff, who weren’t accustomed to having a female, especially once I was more senior, making decisions regarding patient care and leading a team. One of the challenges initially was convincing the floor nursing staff, especially at night, that I really was one of the orthopedic residents!”
“I punctuated my medical training with my first baby as a medical student, my second as a resident doctor, third while I was in practice with my husband and my fourth just after I opened my own private practice. Throughout my journey, I embraced help from my support system openly. […] My approach towards my personal and professional goals changed with every variable that entered my life. It’s important to embrace your support system, seek out support for areas of deficit, maintain a highly organized, prioritized flow to all of your tasks and stay adaptable on your journey.”
“Surgery was beginning to be less male-dominated by the 1990s, when I started residency, but most programs were no more than 20% women. I certainly witnessed women residents and students being sexually harassed, and sexism was much more tolerated. Now that surgical residencies are nearly 50% women, the atmosphere is much more gender neutral. However, like many of the other women have noted, surgical leadership is still male-dominated; there are only 7 women surgical Chairs around the country. We have much work to do.”
“Leadership moves often require geographic moves. Most institutions want to say that they found the best candidate after an international effort, and promoting folks from within is often seen as less ideal. Moving with a partner and/or children can be problematic. The pay gap also gets us. Women in medicine often make less than male counterparts, even when factoring in specialty choice and work effort. Since raises tend to be percentages of salary, these discrepancies become magnified as time passes. When the unpaid chores of life come up, it makes more sense for the less-well-paid partner to do them, so women more often get side tracked by such things. We can appear less serious about our careers, making progress and leadership opportunities fewer.”
Jenni Whalen is the Executive Assistant of Editorial at Upworthy. She was previously MedTech Boston's Managing Editor and has an MS in Journalism from Boston University, as well as a BA in Psychology from Bucknell University. Whalen has written for Greatist, Boston magazine, AZ Central Healthy Living and the New England Journal of Medicine, among other places. She has also worked as a conference planner, ghost writer, researcher and content developer.
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