Overcoming the Challenges of Being a Female Physician

April 30, 2009

There are real challenges that face women who choose to be doctors. Many of them center on issues of respect and achieving work-life balance.

As a female physician, these are some of the questions I ask myself:

If I were a man and introduced myself as Dr. Parrott, would patients address me by my first name as though we are friends?

If I were a man, would patients repeatedly ask me when the “real doctor” will be visiting them?

If I were a man, would they ask me to fetch a fresh pitcher of water for their hospital room?

Most of my doctor friends are also moms and wives, and almost all of them feel pressure to effectively juggle professional and personal responsibilities. So I asked them to share their thoughts with me.
 
The upsides. All respondents in my unscientific survey reported that they cannot imagine another career so intellectually satisfying.

Many female physicians consider having the ability to choose the flexibility of a part-time or other nontraditional practice - such as an academic appointment or becoming an employed physician - an important benefit of being a physician.

Another common theme is the physician-patient relationship, which most of my female colleagues find emotionally rewarding. Interestingly, we seem to enjoy the intense life and death responsibilities as much as we gripe about them.

The downsides. While I think all working parents struggle with separating their personal and professional lives, those of us in medicine have a special responsibility with no room for error. Can you imagine explaining to a patient that you missed noting his critical lab value suggesting cancer because you were baking cookies for the PTA fundraiser?

Those of my female compatriots who are parents suggest that even as our children’s fathers are taking on more of the childcare duties, we are still responsible for much of the day-to-day parenting.

Because most women learn sometime during childhood that you catch more flies with honey, we female physicians sometimes lack the skills necessary to assertively negotiate schedules or contracts. Similarly, many of those surveyed reported having trouble confronting subtly disrespectful acts or statements by peers and staff.

Pearls of wisdom. As much as I enjoy being a physician and mother, I’ve found that it’s vital to become an advocate for yourself. Rally your troops and don’t be afraid to develop creative strategies for maximizing your resources and time. The following are a few tried-and-true solutions that I rely on:

• Have a set of girlfriend confidantes both in and out of the medical field for troubleshooting, companionship, and occasional whining.

• Ask your local medical society if they have special programs or mentoring opportunities for female physicians.

• At home, divide and conquer household and childcare responsibilities.

• Search the internet for female physician bloggers. A list can be found at medlogs.com. Sometimes it’s nice to anonymously peek in on another life and realize you are not alone.

• Before entering any negotiation, do your homework so you will be informed. Remember to negotiate for the best deal and don’t worry about pleasing the other parties. When you are happy with the results, you will do good work, which benefits everyone. 

• Confront subtle disrespect if it affects your work life and ability to effectively care for patients.  

Remember why you chose this career. If necessary, go back and read your medical school application essay. I’m sure you said you wanted to help people - now you are doing just that.

Sarah Parrott, DO,is a hospitalist at Shawnee Mission Medical Center in Overland Park, Kan. She is board-certified in family medicine and is a volunteer assistant professor at The University of Kansas School of Medicine.