September is Women in Medicine Month and as the month draws to an end I have been wondering what it means to be women in medicine today. Over 20 years ago, my medical school class was one of the first with a near 50% ratio of male to female students, and currently most medical schools are indeed comprised of half women. Additionally, women currently comprise over half of many subspecialties, especially in female driven areas such as Pediatrics and Obstetrics and Gynecology and are making headway in many male dominated specialties, such as surgery, orthopedics and urology.
Before I delve into what it is like to be a woman in medicine currently, I would like to first take you on a review of a few instrumental women who have paved the way. These women who have trail blazed and lighted our paths include: Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to earn a medical degree, Dr. Rebecca Crumpler, the first black female to become a physician, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, the first known female surgeon, Dr. Hellen Brooke Taussig with her amazing contributions to repairing infants born with congenital heart disease and the first female president of the American Heart Association, Dr. Virginia Apgar and her development of the APGAR scoring system. Dr. Antonia Novello, the first Hispanic to become the Surgeon General of the United States, and Dr. Nancy Dicky the first female president of the American Medical Association. These women have barreled through and lit fires to pave the way for many of us.
Looking Back At Medical School
Within my medical school class many of us female students were married and many of us had children (infants or toddlers) running around us, both at home and in the library. We fought for equality and struggled with the demands of both medical school and residency and we further demanded both opportunities for work and requested means to have an ample home life with our kids and families. We have become as resilient as many of my patients and we have come a long way but there is still work to be done and we have a ways to go to truly be considered equal in our field.
Today as a female physician my current employer pays all physicians that are employed by our group equally regardless of gender. This unfortunately is still not always true and there are still significant disparities found for women physicians despite equal training and workload. We still need to pave inroads to leadership roles and there are still double standards for women when we ask for maternity leave or time away from work for family. Often times these make us seem less employable or more difficult to work with, and employers feel this would put more burdens on the remaining group. Moreover, these are oftentimes seen as rationalization of their decision to not hire women of child bearing age.
I most definitely recall some inappropriate questions made of me when I was applying for medical school. I had just had my son and was still nursing him throughout the interview season. I chose not to eat lunch with the fellow interviewees as I needed to feed/pump for my son who came with me to the interview and who was being watched by my mother in our car in the parking lot.
It was noted that I had been absent for the lunch and the interviewer following the lunch admonished me during his interview stating that in medicine I would not be allowed to just leave to care for my child and that I should rethink my desire to become a physician. He also demanded to know how I planned to care for my children while in medical school.
Needless to say, despite my answers he was bullish and not considerate of my situation with my husband on an active deployment. I had been most excited about this particular medical school interview. However, I left feeling defeated and was the most disturbed by this specific medical interview because this had been my top choice of schools to attend as it was the closest to my family. Thankfully, I had several other interviews that were both more positive and accommodating, and I delightedly chose a medical school that was better fitted for me and my family.
What I See Working with Residents
Working with residents as an attending physician in the emergency department over the years I still see the struggles that women in medicine face. Many of the same challenges and uncertainties that were present 20 years ago are still there; the question of whether they should change their names when they marry, the dilemma in their choice of specialty for achieving the perfect balance of work and family, the question of when to have children as well as when to marry. These problems are universal for all women who are in the workforce but also they are so unique to the practice of medicine. Being able to balance time at work and at home often becomes the defining juncture between specialties.
Both my grown children are pursuing the medical field, but both claim to not want to specialize in emergency medicine. I am certain that my nights, weekends and holidays away working in the ED have definitely made an impact on their choices. As my daughter begins to navigate her way to residency, what specialty she chooses has been somewhat determined by my past choices, yet, I hope more than anything, she pursues her passion, after all medicine is a calling and the limitations are hopefully only placed by ourselves.
Many who have come before us have broken the chains and we will as women continue to pioneer our way into the history books by becoming leaders in our own right. Leaders such as Dr. Elisabeth Nagel, and Dr. Patricia Gabow who have been named to a list of the 10 most powerful women in healthcare by Healthcare Magazine. As well as other physician female leaders of social media like Dr. Sasha Schoville Shillcutt who started Style MD, a physician social media group that instills positivity with a flair for style. In addition, Dr. K. Kay Moody with her media group of over 30,000 emergency medicine physicians and her desire to help physicians combat burnout amongst physicians. In April, Women in White Coats put on a Conference and Wellness Retreat to help woman doctors relax, connect with one another and also to give women doctors the skills they need to have a long, thriving career in medicine. And we are already planning our 2020 Women in White Coats Wellness Retreat specifically designed for women doctors. These women along with Women in White Coats have taken control and are empowering women doctors to be more, and they have developed tribes for us to feel part of. Our path is now lit and we are still making strides to be better, to do better and to lead the way to better health for ourselves and our patients.
Dr. Maria Perez-Johnson is a Pediatric Emergency Medicine physician who practices in South Texas. She is also co-author of The Chronicles of Women in White Coats. She is passionate about the health care of children. She is a wife, mother, and author and has found a new passion in writing. She spends her off days traveling and walking short distances with her bulldog Zeus. She can be followed on Instagram @mperejohnson.
To hang out more with Dr. Maria Perez-Johnson and other amazing women doctors like her, check out the Women in White Coats Doctors’ Lounge, our virtual doctors’ lounge just for women doctors. Its an exclusive membership area meant to empower and support you throughout your career. Inside our Doctors Lounge, you will get to partake in webinars from experts on topics relevant to women physicians, monthly online support groups and even a book club. To become a member click this link.