Updated: Sep 20, 2019
Pre-medical student Daniela Sierra joins us on the blog to discuss how SOCIAL STIGMAS and MISCONCEPTIONS affect a female physician’s choice of specialty.
Throughout a woman’s life there are many instances when her ability to perform a certain job or undertake a great responsibility is questioned because of her gender- leading to a decreased level of self-esteem and confidence. For female physicians, this is especially true when choosing their medical specialty, which occurs during the last year of medical school. Factors related to specialty choice include: concerns about being children’s main caretaker, the possibility of needing to take a maternity leave, and their fear of infertility. Many female fourth-year medical students are inclined to choose from a variety of specialties perceived to be less time-intensive. Aside from these personal factors, female medical students may choose a residency in which they see a significant number of female physicians in the workplace and in leadership positions.
Even after the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education’s duty hour reform in 2003, which established an 80-hour workweek limit for medical residents amongst other regulations, the gender gap in certain specialties seems to still be very prominent. According to a research study that examined women’s likeliness to enter a specialty based on the presence or absence of different accommodations, it was suggested that there is a direct correlation between the number of women who are in leadership positions in prospective residency programs and the number of female residents who decide to go into those programs (Wasserman, 20). This factor is so important in a future female physician’s decision of residency programs because it is a true indicator of their prospects in a given field. This study further indicated that the other most commonly considered factor when choosing a residency specialty is the hospital’s established policies in terms of having children throughout residency and how lenient these are (Wasserman, 20).
Another study to look at Deech B. Women Doctors: Making a Difference, London: Department of Health, 2009.
For instance in an article written by Lyndra Vassar for the American Medical Association, women comprised 58% of family medicine residents, 75% of pediatric residents, and 57% of psychiatry residents. These specialties, while equally valuable, tend to have more defined work hours and less unprecedented incidents. On another hand, according to the same article, women comprise 41% of surgical residents, 38% of emergency medicine residents, and 37% of anesthesiology residents; specialties known for their unpredictability in terms of necessary procedures and extraneous work hours. These specialties that tend to be stable and predictable are thus, perceived to be more understanding of female physicians’ pregnancies during their training years.
However, the stigma does not just end with a woman’s perception of her knowledge and abilities but also with the common stereotypes that they believe are present in different specialties. Orthopedic surgery, for example, tends to be a male-dominated field because it is seen as requiring a certain level of physical strength. Women, then, tend to lean less to such specialties, because they have grown up with the typical “girls aren’t as strong as boys” environment resonating with them. In this way, it is evident that these choices based on the stigmas surrounding the female gender are deeply rooted and difficult to overcome even for women who have the same qualifications and experiential background as their male counterparts.
So, what can medical institutions, schools, and residency programs do to make all specialities inclusive to female physicians. One of the main efforts would be to increase the number of female mentors and power figures for future female and male physicians. Doing so will allow women to feel empowered to specialize in any field. This form of mentorship is also extremely important at the medical school level where an increase in female professors and faculty may boost the feminist morale. At this same level, it would also be beneficial to create and promote a less competitive environment for both female and male medical students. Establishing a pass/fail, for instance would encourage cooperation between all the students and provide them with a support system of their fellow peers. Moreover, it should become a priority to inform prospective medical students and physicians of equality in all of the medical specialties. This could be done in the form of presentations, conferences, and or workshops where women can mingle with female physicians and residents to understand their experience in certain specialties. (This is what we, at SheMD, are trying to do virtually with our SheMD Why Specialty series.)
It is absolutely crucial to continue making female empowerment a priority in all areas of the workplace. Creating a comfortable and supporting environment for all medical students, residents, and physicians would ensure that the only factor that goes into their decision for a career is their true passion.
1. Vassar, L. (2015). How medical specialties vary by gender. American Medical Association. https://www.ama-assn.org/residents-students/specialty-profiles/how-medical-specialties-vary-gender
2. Wasserman, M. (2018). Hours Constraints, Occupational Choice, and Gender: Evidence from
Medical Residents. University of California-Los Angeles Anderson School of Management