“For what is done or learned by one class of women becomes by virtue of their common womanhood, the property of all women.” These are the words of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States. By doing so on January 23rd 1849, she forever changed the face of Medicine.
There have been many other pioneers after her. Of note is Dr. Anandibai Gopal Joshi. She left her native India to attend medical school in America. She was inspired to become a physician after the death of her infant son due to lack of medical care. Encouraged by her postal worker husband, she graduated at the age of twenty-one, despite struggling with tuberculosis. She returned to India and served for a short while before succumbing to her disease. Even today, when education of women in India and much of the world takes a backseat–this century-old tale of Dr. Joshi is indeed inspirational.
Unfortunately, for women doctors then, practicing out in the real world was another story. People did not want to entrust their care to them. They still persevered, and focused on the marginalized and downtrodden sections of society. It is not surprising that even as of today, women physicians are still leading health-care for the uninsured and the undocumented.
Women in medicine have come a long way, but there are still several issues facing them. Women physicians are often not accorded the same respect and recognition as their male peers. A recent Doximity study showed that they also get paid an average of 27.7% less than their male counterparts, despite equal training and for the same amount of work done. Women also account for only 13.9% of department chairs and less than 20% of medical school deans.
Gender disparity in pay and leadership is not limited to the field of medicine, or to the USA, of course. However, addressing it is of paramount importance, for several reasons. Firstly as has been noted before, an environment that excludes and undervalues women, by default, breeds an environment where sexual harassment can and does take place.
In addition, what message does it send to society, and to our daughters and our sons, if highly educated female physicians are dismissed and undervalued? What message does it send to all other women who aspire for equality and dignity at home and in the workplace?
What message does it send to the rest of the world if we in the United States-a beacon of democracy and equality, cannot correct these inequities.
Despite these inequalities, women in medicine continue to forge forward. More women than men enrolled for the first time in medical school in 2017. A JAMA internal medicine study also showed that women physicians have just as good, if not better outcomes than their male counterparts in some cases.
Women physicians are innovating in the fields of telemedicine and blockchain technology. They are at the forefront of cutting edge research and health care. Along with their male counterparts, they are harnessing the power of social media to make their voices heard. They are also using it to address the burning healthcare issues of today including morbidity and mortality that arise from gun violence, and from an unvaccinated populace.
They are empowering young women and men, medical students and other fellow women physicians. They are educating, leading, holding conferences on various topics throughout the nation. They are writing, blogging, addressing burnout, suicide and other challenges faced by the medical profession as a whole. They are involved in the business aspects of medicine and are navigating managed care, insurance companies, electronic health records and even the advent of artificial intelligence and its implications for the future of medicine
They are doing all these things and more, within the context of their very busy lives. Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell would be proud.
Dr. Anupama Verma is a nephrologist. She has been practicing for more than fifteen years and has lived on four continents. She can be followed on instagram and Twitter @anuvmd.