"Wait… YOU’RE the doctor?” Zarina Ali, MD, hears it from patients all the time even though she has been conducting brain and spinal surgery at Pennsylvania Hospital since 2016.
Patient reactions were even more polarized when she was doing surgical rounds while eight months pregnant with twins, she recalls. “I just take it as an opportunity to educate that person by saying, ‘No, I’m the neurosurgeon who’s going to be operating on your dad’s brain tomorrow, so let me explain the procedure.’”
Female applicants to medical school have increased by more than 50 percent in the past 15 years. In 2017, for the first time, more women entered U.S. medical schools than men, notes the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). While AAMC President and CEO Darrell G. Kirch, MD, calls this a “notable milestone,” today’s numbers make other disparities even more glaring than in the past.
Female physicians still are disproportionately sparse among the upper echelons of academia and as leads on research teams and in medical departments. Even fewer women are represented in medical specialty societies—many specialty societies didn’t honor any female recipients with recognition awards until the 1990s, notes the 2017 study “Where Are The Women?”
The barriers to female leadership and career advancement are deep within the fabric of the U.S. medical profession and within us as people, explains Valencia Walker, MD, MPH, immediate past-president of the Association of Black Women Physicians. The obstacles for female physicians of color are geometrically greater, including in the wallet: National medical compensation reports have consistently shown that black and Latina women are paid the least compared to their professional peers.
Gender assumptions and biases about medical professionals begin in early childhood, run rampant in academia, and persist to the top of the professional chain. We’ve all heard them: Women are viewed as too emotional and not dedicated enough. Men are viewed as gruff and bossy. Ironically, even women often assume the team leader should be a man.
So, how can all physicians best support their female colleagues as medical professionals and kindred spirits in the career advancement journey? Although the physician gender equity issue is complex and formidable, plenty of progress can be made by focusing on five goals in your everyday practice.
Acknowledge the obstacles
The realities of obstacles to female leadership and advancement are beginning to receive greater attention, including at the nation’s top medical associations. In June, the AMA unanimously passed a gender equity resolution to analyze and address gender-based compensation disparities and impediments to career advancement. “This was a big step in the right direction, because the AMA agreed to ‘walk the talk’ and take specific action,” says Julie K. Silver, MD, associate professor in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School, who helped write the AMA resolution. “A lot of the advocacy came from trainees and early-career physicians, and this clearly showed us what powerful change agents they are and will continue to be.”
Tip: While recruitment and pay equity are obvious places to push for culture change, so is post-employment support. Most physician practices can ease the burden of the choices women must make when seeking education for career advancement and/or raising children through creative scheduling, job transitioning, and even job-sharing strategies.