What it Takes To Be a Woman in Medicine

Photo  from a 1960's American Medical Women's Association Brochure. 

Photo from a 1960's American Medical Women's Association Brochure. 

A father and his son are in a car accident. The father dies instantly, and the son is taken to the nearest hospital. The doctor comes in and exclaims "I can't operate on this boy."

"Why not?" the nurse asks.

"Because he's my son," the doctor responds.

How is this possible?


If you’ve never heard this riddle, take a second. How is this possible? This question sadly has stumped masses of people for years and surprise- I’m going to spoil it for you. The doctor is the son’s mother. A woman. Shocker, right?

A woman in a white coat is so difficult to imagine that it’s riddle worthy because although as a country almost half of all medical students are women, men dominate specialties that tend to be seen as the sexy side of medicine. Male residents dominate 59% of surgery, 62% of emergency medicine, 63% of anesthesiology, and 73% of radiology. On the other hand women make up a larger percent of family medicine (58%), psychiatry (57%), pediatrics (75%), and gynecology (85%). For practices like gynecology there’s the issue of patient preferences. Many gynecology patients prefer female physicians and express so even when there is a male medical student on rotation in the room. Naturally through this process men may be swayed from the specialty. However, as for the rest of the specialties mentioned, there is no obvious patient preference. So, why such a large gender division?


Allyson Herbst has shared her experiences on how women are treated throughout medical school. As if being criticized for choosing to not wear makeup one day wasn’t enough, Herbst reports her and her colleges being mistaken for nurses and being referred to as “girls” unlike their “young men” counterparts. Herbst notes that although these instances may seem small, “the aggression towards women it communicates, is a real problem.”

Compared to women in other fields with doctorate degrees, female physicians have a higher rate of major depression. Female physicians also commit suicide at a rate equal to that of male physicians, even though the general population of men commit suicide at a rate four times as high as women. Women also only make up 15% of department chairs and 16% of deans in medical colleges. Small instances of discrimination at the early stages of medical school affect women’s future in a massive way.

It has been noted that female doctors work roughly 2-10 less hours per week than male doctors, leading to a lower pay for women physicians, making medical school not a worthwhile investment for women. A $20,000 pay gap that is. While the notion of medical school being an “investment” adds to the idea that a medical career path should be done for money and not for actual passion, this data fails to recognize how women have been found to be better doctors than men.

Women have been found to be better at following guideline recommended treatment and effectively communicating things like prevention advice. So, although doctor visits may be a pain for many of us, just know your female physician has been through some incredibly challenging obstacles. Thank her. And root for the young women around you who want to pursue a career in medicine. They need it, and they deserve it.