Women have finally reached an important milestone. According to AAMC, the numbers of women in medical school in 2016 pulled almost equal to the numbers of men. To be exact, women were 49.8 of the pool of matriculants to medical school, compared to 50.2 percent men. The increase in 2016 alone was 6.2%. Something big is happening here! So what exactly does this mean to young girls, and to women who are planning a career as a doctor? It means the door is wide open…come on through.
This monumental growth in the numbers of women in medical school hasn’t come without some hard work on the part of women, significant societal change, and a persistent effort by schools to encourage students of both sexes to take the pre-med path and apply more broadly.
Today if you’re a woman and you’re on the pre-med path, you have plenty of company. Consider…in the 1970’s, only 7.6 percent of women in medical school were women. As recent as 2000, that number grew, but women still only counted for 24% of all med school students. The good news is: the stigma is behind you if you are a female med school applicant today, and in fact, women still get a little extra help from admissions committees to get accepted. It looks like that won’t be necessary in the very near future, but if you’re applying in the next few cycles, you can probably still count on a little extra help.
Are there women’s specialties?
While there’s no such thing as women’s or men’s specialties, it turns out that women and men self-direct to certain medical specialties at a higher rate. For men, the top specialties they dominate are Surgery (59%), Emergency medicine (62%), Radiology (73%) and Internal medicine (54%). Surgery is especially perceived as “the guys’ turf,” so may be one of the most difficult specialties for women to penetrate.
On the other hand, women in medical school are more likely to choose Family Medicine (59%), Psychiatry (75%), Pediatrics (75%) and Obstetrics-Gynecology (85%). Change is coming in the surgical suite as well, as General Surgery trainees are now 38% women. Women are still underrepresented in several specialties, in addition to those above: Neurosurgery, Orthopedics and Urology. This could mean that applying to these specialties could give women in medical school a slight edge over their male colleagues since the overriding goal is to wring any sexism out of the medical education arena.
Challenges for women in medical school
Ironing out the numbers won’t create instant change. In fact, women in medical school report difficulty in “taking the reins” like they want to. It’s easy after a lifetime of conditioning to accept a lesser role or stand back and let male colleagues take over. Reports from today’s female medical school students reflect a persistent trend towards stereotypical behavior like identifying more with nursing and support staff and apologizing for errors.
A more positive trait that is also common among women medical students and physicians is being more comforting and nurturing with patients, and providing patients with greater emotional support. And according to the Wall Street Journal, women are seen as being more effective at delivering preventive care. Once more women doctors are placed increasingly in faculty and leadership positions, they’ll have the opportunity to grow in leadership qualities and provide this type of positive mentoring for a generation of upcoming female med students.
Depression afflicts women in medical school, men too
Depression is prevalent among all medical school students, due to the pressures, time constraints, lack of social connectedness and sleep, and insecurity issues. But women seem to be especially prone to these effects. Being aware of this fact is the first step to greater awareness and action when problems arise.
Wage differential between women in medical school and men
There is a differential between the wages of women and men doctors. Part of that is related to the specialties women choose at a higher rate including Family Medicine and Pediatrics. But while men typically work substantially more than a 40-hour work week, women doctors work 2-10 hours less than a full work week, often due to family commitments, maternity breaks, and child care issues. Here is a shocking fact: women physicians, on average, make $50,000 per year less than their male counterparts. The biggest factor is specialty, with a male-dominated specialty like orthopedic surgery offering earnings of $464,500, while a pediatrician makes on average $145,000.
Over time, these differences will lessen, but for women in medicine today who plan to have families (and who often bear the brunt, or have the most important interaction with their children), should calculate the cost of longer residencies required for some specialties given the eventual payoff. Planning ahead to have help needed to shoulder some of these family responsibilities will help make the pay gap smaller.
Sexism and harassment
Women physicians report plenty of sexism and sexual harassment, from sexual banter during surgery to put downs from their male counterparts, as they perform their roles as physicians. The profession is working to change this, and it mainly afflicts certain (male dominated) specialties. Today, 30 to 70 percent of women faculty at medical schools report gender-based discrimination.
Why address these problematic issues in a post about women in medicine? Because they are reality. However, as mentioned above, the profession is working to change the culture of medicine, and with more women doctors coming along every cycle, it will inevitably happen. The future of medicine is rife with hope for the women who take this path.
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