Friday Feb 02, 2018
With Most New Med Students Women Now, Let's Boost Our Support
Ladies (and gentlemen),
Now seems like the perfect time, especially in the wake of the #MeToo movement -- which has exposed patterns of sexual assault and harassment toward women that was tolerated for too long -- to highlight a milestone achievement for women. In 2017, for the first time ever, the class of students entering medical school was greater than 50 percent female.(news.aamc.org)
Of note, many individual schools reached that milestone much earlier, and some are significantly greater than 50 percent female.(www.the-review.com) For example, the entering class at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences is 62 percent women.
I am proud that my alma mater, the University of Texas Medical School, Houston, (now McGovern Medical School), reached 50 percent nearly 40 years ago. Imagine, in that conservative state! At that time, the overall percentage of women in medicine in the United States was 17 percent, and the majority of them were in medical school and residency.
It has been nearly 170 years since Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman physician of modern times,(www.pbs.org) graduated from medical school. She tried to gain acceptance to medical school multiple times by stating on her application that she was a man, but was rejected. Eventually, she entered medical school as a woman when her all-male colleagues voted to accept her application because they thought it was a joke!
Blackwell helped establish the notion of prevention and was a leading advocate for public health. She worked exclusively among the underserved in the slums of New York City, teaching concepts like hand hygiene, clothes washing, ridding tenements of rats, and segregating waste to help keep people healthy.
Around the time Blackwell was completing her education, the first all-women's medical college(www.atlasobscura.com) was established in Pennsylvania. Women from around the world came to seek what was then an untraditional role.
These pioneers would be proud to see how far women have come in medicine. We owe much of the success of women today to the efforts of these early trailblazers, and to the increased support and encouragement from family and teachers for women in the fields of math and science. Thanks to the women who advocated for themselves and their daughters to have more choices in their lives, young girls and women now have many role models to show them possibilities and mentor them.
In the 1960s, there was a societal shift as women moved into more nontraditional careers and sought opportunities broader than secretary or administrative assistant. As a high school student in the mid-70s, I deliberately avoided learning to type because I didn't want to be typecast in one of these traditional roles. As a college student in the late '70s I was fortunate to have the encouragement of professors and the unwavering support of my parents, both of whom had attended college.
If we hope to create a health care system that is truly equitable, it is critical that the physician community works to sustain the advances women have made, and furthermore, that we identify ways to continue building a physician workforce that looks more like the population as a whole. In 2016, only 7 percent of medical school graduates were black, and only 6 percent were Latino. The numbers are also dismally low when looking at medical students from rural backgrounds, where many communities are hurting from lack of access to health care. The support systems, mentoring programs and advocacy efforts that led to greater numbers of women in medical careers are essential in creating the workforce our patients need.
Of course, there are issues for women that still need to be addressed, such as underrepresentation in several subspecialties, including cardiology, orthopedics and urology. The persistent data regarding female physicians earning less than males for the same work needs to be addressed. Additionally, women are more likely to be lower-level professors in academic centers.(www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
When it comes to negotiation in general, women fare more poorly than their male counterparts. Education of women in the art of negotiation (which was not taught in my undergraduate college or in my medical training) could be a benefit. Of note is the fact that perceptions of the same trait differ depending on whether it is expressed by men or women, which can disadvantage women. For example, one might describe a man seeking a raise or promotion as being assertive, while a woman doing so might be described -- negatively -- as aggressive. If a trait is deemed desirable, it should be treated as such for both genders.
What can make a difference moving forward? I return to a support system -- a support system of family and friends and colleagues. For example, I once was one of five female family physicians in Grapevine, Texas, with nontraditional male spouses who were the primary caregivers for our children, and the chief cooks and bottle washers. That scenario obviously isn't replicable for everyone, but we can all find places to go for support, encouragement and venting, whether it be online or in person. Check out Facebook's Physician Moms in Family Medicine group (contact administrator Kim Yu, M.D., to join) or consider joining one of the AAFP's member interest groups. And did you know that the AAFP's National Conference of Constituency Leaders offers leadership development and opportunities for women?
For nearly 30 years, there have been regular dinner gatherings of female physicians and health-related professionals in northeast Tarrant County near Fort Worth, Texas, many times hosted in a participant's home. Known as the "Diva Docs," the group is a wonderful source of friendship, mentoring and networking. I was one of the original four women involved. Could you begin such a group in your community?
Whether supporting our women physician colleagues or serving as role models for future physicians, we can make a difference by making ourselves available as preceptors or premed mentors.
Let's celebrate how far we have come! Here's to the next generation of women doctors!
Erica Swegler, M.D., is a member of the AAFP Board of Directors.
Posted at 05:34PM Feb 02, 2018 by Erica Swegler, M.D.