Advancing Women in Medicine
Class of 2013 alumna Dr. Izabella Shuvayev, now a geriatric psychiatrist, looks at a photo of herself as a student at AUC School of Medicine.
Fifty years ago, the percentage of MD graduates who were women hovered around just 10% in the United States, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. It’s safe to say the landscape has since changed.
Each year, women are achieving new milestones of representation in the medical field, strengthening the pipeline of female physicians. Between 2015 and 2017, the number of women enrolling in U.S. medical schools grew almost 10%. Last year, for the first time, women represented not only the majority of matriculants (52.4%), but also the majority of applicants (52.2%) and enrolled U.S medical students (50.5%).
That shift in medical school demographics is beginning to show in the physician workforce as well. As of 2018, while female physicians made up only 35.8% of the U.S. workforce, they outnumbered male physicians in the youngest cohort (34 years of age and younger).
Even all-female medical teams are no longer as rare as they might have been decades prior. AUC alumna Nikole Czapp, MD ’17 was one of seven women in her family medicine residency class at Drexel University in Philadelphia, and geriatric psychiatrist Izabella Shuvayev, MD ’13 is part of a group of women physicians at her clinic within the Hartford HealthCare Medical Group in Connecticut.
Watch Dr. Czapp and Dr. Shuvayev discuss their experiences as women in their medical specialties >>
While the medical field is diversifying at its outset, women physicians continue to grapple with work-family conflict, gender biases, and other factors that pose a challenge to the advancement of their careers. Although work and home can be tricky for any parent to balance, new physician mothers are especially impacted by varying levels of institutional support for aspects of parenthood that intersect with time spent at work, such as breastfeeding and finding opportunities to pump milk.
“Physician mothers have fairly low breastfeeding continuation rates,” says Dr. Julie Taylor, AUC Chief Academic Officer and Senior Associate Dean for Academic and Student Affairs, and Past President of the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine. “They start high and then decline quickly, which suggests that there is an aspect of their work that is not supporting maternal child health.”
Women physicians can also be caught off guard by the persistence of stereotypes and misperceptions in the workplace. One frequent scenario involves being mistaken for a nurse even after introducing yourself as the doctor, an experience that AUC Provost Dr. Heidi Chumley describes in her 2016 piece, “The Importance of Female Role Models in Medicine.”
“Whether intentional or not, this type of formative experience can greatly impact one’s self-worth and confidence as a new medical professional,” Dr. Chumley writes.
All these factors have the potential to affect women physicians’ professional advancement and career longevity. According to one study, 22.6% of women physicians were not working full-time within six years of completing training, compared to 3.6% of male physicians. This has implications not only for women physicians themselves, but also for their communities and the patients they serve.
“In my experience, environments that are inclusive of women are often the ones that have success enhancing inclusion along multiple lines of diversity,” Dr. Chumley writes. “And this is a very important point for our medical schools, particularly as we prepare students to care for a patient population that is increasingly diverse.”
Paving the Way
What can we do to build on the progress that’s been made and continue the advancement of women in medicine? It’s important to recognize bumps in the road while keeping the momentum. While many workplace challenges stem from systems and cultures that are slower to adapt, there are plenty of ways we can all support and champion women in the field—and that starts on an individual level. “Being confident and proud of the position you’re in helps break down barriers,” says Dr. Czapp.
For female medical students and physicians charting a path to leadership positions, Dr. Taylor offers this advice:
1. Seek out flexible workplace cultures. “One of the key things that has allowed me to be successful is flexibility,” she says. “I’m willing to answer emails at midnight if it means I can go to my kids’ soccer games.”
2. Find mentors (and become a mentor). Actively seek mentors to help you grow in different aspects of your career. Not only does this expand your network and help you gain exposure to diverse perspectives, it also diffuses the demand on others’ time.
“One of my mentors helped me establish my expertise in maternal child health. Another helped me negotiate the search process for a high-level academic position, and another talked to me about how she balanced her kids with her career,” says Dr. Taylor. “Just remember that successful leaders are approached by lots of students, so they become a scarce resource. Be mindful of that, but don’t hesitate to build your network of male and female mentors. And then pay it forward to others.”
3. Don’t limit yourself. “Look at your career with the assumption that no doors are closed to you,” Dr. Taylor says. “It would never occur to me that that I wouldn’t have the same opportunities and privileges that a male physician would have. Go into it with your eyes open, but don’t let expectations limit you.”
Yes, there will be compromises. But if women start out their careers under the assumption that being a female physician comes with insurmountable obstacles, it can be self-fulfilling, she says.
“It’s hard for me to watch people choose between a high-powered career and raising a family,” says Dr. Taylor. “Why should you have to choose?”