There is still gender bias in medicine
© Pixabay

On Feb. 3 we celebrated National Women Physicians Day (NWPD) in honor of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell’s birthday, the first female physician to graduate medical school in the United States. On this day we remember the enormous contributions made by many women who have paved the way for us while we reflect on these many advances we still see room for improvement.  

Gender bias

Implicit gender bias is still present in medicine and there is a continued need to push for gender equality and empowerment of women in their professional and personal lives.

Many women physicians can recount instances in their training and even as attendings when they have been made to feel less than their counterparts. This bias at times is subtle: being called a nurse by patients, not being heard equally at meetings with administrators; and sometimes it is blatant: such as being overlooked for promotions or experiencing gaps in pay.

It can be as simple as being interrupted or not recognized for a thought or an idea. I have felt so many times that I have said something in a meeting but it is not heard until a male colleague repeats it.

Women physicians who start a family are sometimes looked as not being devoted to their profession or not putting in their fair share of time and effort. I have heard many women say how some of their co-residents have made them feel guilty for maternity leave and attendings who are reticent to ask for needed time off. Most women physicians choose to work right up until their time of labor not only to have a longer maternity leave but also to prevent being looked at as being lazy.

The existence of a family itself creates a bias — the perception of not wanting to work too hard. When I returned from maternity leave after a C-section I found my schedule switched from outpatient to a busy inpatient service. I questioned this switch with my chief who bluntly informed me, “If you are not ready, just extend your leave.” I did not.

On medical rounds I felt uncomfortable excusing myself to pump for fear of being considered not a team player. On one of my first job interviews I was told that I probably wanted to work part-time because I had young children. These biases are not always overt, they are understated, and not always present in just men but also found in other women physicians. The image of the ideal physician as an older white male who never leaves the hospital, stays late, works through sickness and puts his work before family has been conditioned into our society. It must change.

Empowering women

These shortages in our profession exist but many academic programs, hospital institutions and private practices have created environments that allow women physicians to flourish in their careers. Such environments have built in support systems and have invested in professional development for leadership positions.

NWPD aims to recognize that these measures are needed early on to make medicine a more welcoming field for all women. This endeavor needs to begin during pre-medical education with female mentors to help young women aspire to become physicians.

I believe medical school resources and schedule flexibility should be made available to assist those with children or in pregnancy. Residency programs should focus on giving women residents equal opportunity to be part of leadership positions and chair committees. Male-oriented programs need to work on cultivating an environment where women feel accepted. Hospitals and private practice should support equal pay for equal work, have defined pathways for promotions or partnerships and have fair representation of women in leadership positions to further model professional growth.

When given the opportunity to frame their own careers, have autonomy over their schedules and feel invested in their futures, women physician are more likely to be productive and successful. I want to encourage equality in opportunities available to both genders, which will lead to better physicians who can serve their communities wholeheartedly.

Samya Mohammad, DO, is an osteopathic rheumatologist in North Carolina and a member of Physician Moms Group.


The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.