Women in Medicine: Opportunities and Challenges

Women are now equally represented in medical school enrollment in the United States. The field of medicine offers some opportunities to women who want to be both doctors and mothers that are not available in other professions. These opportunities, which include flexibility and predictable schedule, are available in some medical specialties but not others. Emma Goldberg of the New York Times writes about the special challenges for women who have a passion to become surgeons. The field of surgery remains male dominated, with only 23 percent of practicing surgeons being women. What are some of the challenges women face who want to become surgeons? Goldberg notes the following:

  • 72 percent of female medical students reported verbal discouragement from going into surgery.
  • Surgical residencies can last up to seven years and require eighty-hour work weeks with little flexibility.
  • Students start training in their midtwenties and continue into their early thirties, which are prime childbearing years.
  • Parental leave policies for pregnancy are not uniform.
  • Flexible schedules are not allowed when returning from pregnancy leave, requiring twelve-hour shifts that don’t allow for breast-feeding or childcare.
  • Access to lactation spaces or breaks for pumping is limited or nonexistent.
  • Women don’t get childcare support.
  • Pregnant residents are subject to microaggressions from faculty and coresidents who feel a pregnant doctor is a burden.

While the obstacles are significant, many women want to be surgeons and bring important sensitivities to the doctor-patient relationship. Institutional changes can make the training of surgeons more inviting to both women and men who want to have families and help close the looming deficit of surgeons needed in the United States.

Some medical specialties offer more family-friendly options. Claire Cain Miller writes in the New York Times about the choices some women have made to go into specialties that are not always their first choice and sometimes are lower paid in order to practice medicine in a more family-friendly specialty, such as pediatrics, dermatology, geriatrics, and child psychiatry. In fact, women are the majority in these specialties, and they are less likely to stop working after childbirth than women in other professions. Here are some of the reasons women are drawn to these specialties:

  • This type of work offers flexible and predictable hours.
  • These professionals are part of a large group practice where more people are available to help cover the work. The majority of female doctors now work for large group practices as employees rather than as independent owners of a medical practice.
  • Women doctors who work reduced hours tend to be paid proportionately. For example, they receive 80 percent of pay for working 80 percent full time.

The more time-intensive specialties, such as surgery, are still male dominated and pay more. As young men going into medicine are beginning to demand more work-family balance, perhaps specialties such as surgery and oncology will reform their requirements for eighty-hour work weeks during training, thereby attracting more women. In the meantime, medicine, overall, has become a model that other professions could follow to create more equitable and family-friendly work environments. Policies and procedures in many medical specialties that work for women are

  • Lactation rooms and breaks for pumping
  • Flexible and predictable schedules
  • Part-time schedules with proportional pay
  • Childcare support
  • Support networks of “doctor moms” who share resources and encouragement and help each other out
  • Parental leave policies that include fathers and support part-time return after childbirth

These policies and practices are needed everywhere.


Photo by Artur Tumasjan on Unsplash

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