In honor of the recent 197th birthday of Elizabeth Blackwell, now lauded as National Women Physicians Day, I have a proposal. What if we decided that, from here on out, to celebrate and promote women in medicine, we as women physicians will only take female medical students?
How would this help lift up women in medicine? An all-girls educational environment is empowering. Being educated in an all-girls environment made me feel like there was nothing I could not do. Women were the heads of the class, the sports stars, and the presidents of every club. Not too long ago, I ran into a male friend from my teens; when I told him I was a physician, he replied, “I would have thought by now that you’d be the president.” To be clear, I don’t have even the slightest political aspiration but took this for the compliment it was, a testament to the type of confidence a single-sex educational environment can give to young women. Feminism is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.” I would argue that to succeed as a female physician, you almost need to have an internal working theory of superiority of the female sex to help balance out all the nonsense thrown at your path. I want other women in medicine to have the same feeling of complete confidence in their future potential.
As a disclaimer, I am in no way serious about this policy. It’s not realistic, or legal for that matter, for me to take only female medical students. I am certainly not advocating discrimination based on gender identity. But, it is exceedingly important to have strong female physicians in the public eye, acting as role models and mentors for both female and male trainees.
Things are not quite where they need to be, but I am optimistic about this current generation of young doctors. We need to continue to be present in the educational training of young male physicians to show them just how much we can do. When they are tossing up their caps on graduation day, I want this to be with an understanding of all the caps their female colleagues wear. Women in medicine are never solely physicians. We are mothers, wives, daughters, sisters and friends.
In 2017, for the first time in US history, women comprised more than 50% of all medical school enrollees nationwide. But walk down any hospital hallway and look around; almost all of the photographs on the wall are men. The first time I realized this, it was shocking to me. Thinking back to high school, with a “brother” school that seemed less academically rigorous, I crafted this idea that boys were just not academically inclined. It took college and also medical school for me to fully embrace that smart, motivated men existed. To my younger self, feminism seemed like an outdated cause. I felt like we had already arrived.
Eighteen years after starting college, 10 years after medical school graduation, and 5 years after completing residency, I am sharply aware of my miscalculation. I see the lack of women in leadership positions. I walk the hospital hallways surrounded by the renderings of men in suits. I am aware of the substantial pay gap that still exists between male and female physicians. I am not immune to the comments equating maternity leave with a “vacation.” We need more women in positions of power publicly talking about these issues. We need more women physicians and scientists being quoted as sources for stories or being interviewed as experts in the national news. To this end, there was the creation of the Twitter hashtag #Quoteher and the Request a Woman Scientist platform, a registry created by 500womenscientists.org.
How can we as women physicians pay tribute to Dr. Blackwell’s legacy? Well, the second definition of “feminism” in Merriam-Webster is: “organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests.” Join a committee, get on a board, attend a female physician networking event, mentor a female medical student, write an Op-ed piece in the paper, join the #womeninmedicine twitter chat…the possibilities for advocacy are endless, just like the possibilities for women in medicine.
And to my male medical students, you will be welcome always to join in the cause and, of course, you are still required to show up next week for your preceptorship.