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Breaking Barriers

The art of being a woman in medicine

“Medicine as a profession is relentless,” said Dr. Angie Thompson, an obstetrician and gynecologist with OB Hospitalist Group and Mayo Clinic. “It is almost like a merry-go-round that’s going very fast. Unless you take time to jump off it or slow down, it’s just going to keep going.”

Today, many women work in the medical field and as seniors have started to think about their futures, many young women want to become doctors or work in healthcare knowing there will be challenges. While it has become accepted that women can do just the same things as men in medicine, many more barriers still need fixing.

The first woman accepted was Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell in 1849 because she was the first woman to receive a US medical license. February 3 is National Women Physician Day, Blackwell’s birthday.

Many more female physicians have come after Blackwell, like the women at an organization called Women in Medicine. Their goal is to close the inequitable gender gap in America’s medical healthcare system. The organization holds lectures, webinars, breakout sessions, resources, and evidence-based research.

Medicine has many different specialties and a woman’s experience may be different depending on what hospital, specialty, or state they’re in.

“I think it depends where you are,” said Dr. Kris Catrine, a pain and palliative care pediatrician at Children’s Minnesota. “One of the hospitals I worked at, I felt, was a lot more accepting, and one of the hospitals I worked at was almost like walking back in time 50 years…. I had to work harder, prove myself more, was easily dismissed and got different answers than some of my male colleagues, even when I had more experience.”

Other women may come from a different background that has shaped their experiences in a different way.

“I think there definitely were [barriers for women] several years ago,” said Thompson. “There are still, but the field that I’m in I haven’t noticed as much. I haven’t really thought of it and I think maybe that’s the point…it sort of has gotten to this point in society where it’s actually very much accepted [to be a woman in medicine].”

According to The American Medical College, as of 2020, the top specialty women work in is OB/GYN. 87% of people in the OB/GYN specialty are women. Next, is Pediatrics at 71%. Family Medicine and Psychiatry are tied at 55%.

“Traditionally, if you look at just the numbers, more women than men tend to go into areas where there’s a little more flexibility, both in the training and in residency training, and then also in one’s practice when the training is over,” said Thompson. “So that’s more likely to occur in fields like family medicine, internal medicine, pediatrics. OB-GYN used to be predominantly men and now, very recently…in the academic area…there’s more female residents than male…Most of the surgical domains and specialties are more represented by men.”

Other than just the physical number difference, a monetary difference between men and women is evident in the medical field. In a 2018 AAMC Salary Survey, they found women earned 90 cents for every dollar that men made in basic science disciplines and 77 cents per $1 in clinical science disciplines.

The University of Minnesota did a study which showed that “female primary care physicians earn less revenue for the care they provide, but spend more time with patients than their male colleagues” For patient visits, the female primary care physicians placed more orders, documented more diagnoses, and spent 2.4 more minutes with patients. Because the female physicians spent more time with patients their total visit volume was lower which makes the revenue for female physicians lower.

A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found the average starting salary of male residents that had just graduated was $17,000 higher than female residents.

Many factors contribute to the pay gap. Women find more career opportunities in lower-paying specialties and prioritize a flexible schedule over higher pay. They also tend not to negotiate their salary.

“I think that just in navigating the whole process of schooling and residency and practice, really the focus on the patient is the primary concern…when [any barriers] became apparent was when I started having my own family,” said Thompson. “​​If you want to have a family, it’s really hard if you’re in your prime years of being young and you’re working in the hospital and your whole life is just that, kind of hard to do that,” said Thompson.

Even young women with the determination to become a doctor think that there will be some challenges being a woman in medicine.

“There definitely will be barriers because of the stereotype of women in STEM, but I feel like, with enough drive and hard work, I will be able to overcome those barriers,” said senior Emily John, an aspiring doctor. “No matter where you go, there will always be specific stereotypes. Like, is she going to perform the same as a male in that same position?”

There are many young aspiring female physicians today. These young women can learn from the older women that have gone through the same process.

“My best advice is to not let the environment around you dictate how you feel about yourself,” said Catrine. “Just keep going and develop a thick skin. Sometimes, people are going to say things and act certain ways that are rude, and that’s not even about gender bias. That’s just medicine.”

It is important to think about what a specific specialty will look like later in life.

“Within the system, you choose to be educated and I would say, don’t be afraid to ask questions of professionals that you meet in the medical field,” Thompson said.

“Really try to recognize the fact that as you go through your career path, and if something seems to really click, kind of explore that a little more and say, ‘Well, what could this look like for me, not just when I’m 21, but when I’m 31, when I’m 41? What is the reality like, on a day-to-day basis?’

Finding mentors, specifically, a woman will help sort out which specialties will be doable and work for any aspiring female physician.

“Maybe try to find women in those groups who could you could talk to say, ‘Is this something that’s…workable, or what are some of the challenges?’…[Establish] the values that you have and [make] your life choices to keep those values secure to you without having to feel like you have to fit into a mold of a profession,” said Thompson.

There are a lot of young women that have mentors that they can look up to.

“My mom is someone that I can talk to,” said John. “Whenever I am doubting myself, she says, ‘Do what you want. At the end of the day, it’s up to you and you can do whatever you want to do as a career.’”

“My family has a lot of connections with the healthcare industry so I have a good circle of women that I can go to for advice and guidance,” said senior Bethany Jemie, another aspiring female physician.

With many young women dreaming of becoming a doctor, strong women in the field now are paving the way for generations to come.

“I had two kids during my training. I think it is absolutely doable. I don’t want people to get the idea that you shouldn’t do it. I have female friends that are surgeons. You can do it…It’s not everywhere that you find this bias. It’s just some places that it’s still there. So do it anyway.”

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