The Challenges of Being a Woman in Medicine and Why It Is Essential to Keep Pushing
October 4, 2021
By Margaux Everingham and Mitali Shah
Mitali on Overcoming Sexist Doubt
The question “Are you sure about that?” is one that I became all too familiar with. As an Indian girl with dreams of becoming a physician, I was constantly asked this question, and with each additional time, the words became heavier and scarier. At one point in my life, I was sure about my decision – when I used to dress up in my dad’s white button-down and use my play stethoscope to diagnose my family members, my decision was unwavering and resistant to any doubts. As I grew up, however, the world around me unexpectedly and incessantly started to ask questions.
In middle school, people began questioning whether I was serious about the decision I was making. High school is hard, they said, and college is even harder. And they would try to convince me that medical school is next to impossible – for a girl. My parents would tell me to politely smile and ignore the comments because nobody knew my drive better than I did. Then high school came around and people finally recognized my academic talent and dedication, but began to ask me if I was ready to throw away the prime years of my life in order to fulfill my dream. “How will you get married? When will you have kids?” My answer was always the same: “I’ll figure it out.” I had never thought of my passion as something that would steal from me. My time was something I was happily willing to give so I could one day live the life I had always envisioned. My parents would now tell me to reply and assert that this is what I wanted. They would explain that life doesn’t stop because of the path you choose, it simply continues on a different road than those around you.
As a current second-year medical student, I still get asked this question sometimes, and it makes me realize that as a woman in a historically male-dominated field, I will always be questioned. I will be questioned because I am a woman. I will be questioned because I am a woman of color. I will be questioned because at 5’ 2”, I don’t fit the typical description of a physician. After years of answering the question and justifying my decisions to others, however, I don’t feel the need to justify my ambitions anymore. Now, when people ask me if I’m sure, the answer is automatically “yes.”
Margaux on the Power of Women
If you sought medical care 50 years ago, you would likely have been met by paternalistic male physicians who, though likely knowledgeable and skilled in a variety of ways, tended to your medical needs in whatever way they saw fit. They would likely have been stoic, deliberate and unperturbed by trauma or by pain. Their pro forma suit and their equally tailored facial expression might have screamed, “I know what is best for you. Just don’t ask questions.”
For centuries, the male-dominated field of medicine has hinged on this idea of benevolent paternalism where a patient’s opinion was virtually inconsequential. Fortunately, the school of thought has shifted to a patient-centered approach in recent years. The medical community now promotes partnership between provider and patient that actually utilizes the patient’s lived experience in the management of their own care. This change starts to become especially interesting when you consider that in 1969 only 9% of medical school matriculants were women, but today that number is 52%. With the concurrent rise in women in medicine, one cannot help but attribute at least some of this shift in paradigm to the influence of women. Benevolent maternalism, if you will.
Realistically, this shift can likely be attributed to a collaborative effort between a variety of different people in medicine, including both men and women. However, I believe that the increase in gender diversity did play a role. These female physicians did not assimilate to the dominant culture and accept the way things had always been done. They used their unique experiences to question the status quo and improve the quality of care.
Thanks to the women who have come before me, I am in a unique position as future female physician to wonder to myself about other potential areas for change in the medical field and how I can contribute to positive growth. That capacity for change is what keeps me going against that adversity that Mitali described. I am not sure how this next generation of female physicians will impact medicine, but I do know that encouraging diversity of experiences, thoughts and perspectives is essential to innovation. I promise to those who came before me and those that will come after me that, instead of blindly accepting the state of affairs, I will utilize my experience as a woman, as a first-generation medical student, and as a survivor of sexual assault to provide compassionate patient-centered care and to improve the field of medicine to the best of my ability.
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