Glass ceilings, microaggressions, gender pay gap, limited maternity leave, leaky pipeline. We are told these problems exist and what their definitions are as students. However, there were never any real solutions offered up to fix them. Almost like the continued anticipation of going up a steep slope on a roller coaster; you know the big drop is coming, there is nothing you can do about it, and it is going to be terrifying. Early on, I began searching for how to deal with these issues, how to best prepare for a future where I am a physician but also want to become a mother.
I was invited to volunteer at the Women in Medicine Summit during their inaugural year of 2019. I was immediately in awe of some of the Summit’s leaders like Dr. Shikha Jain and Dr. Ananya Gangopadhyaya, how inspirational and driven they were, how they coordinated an incredible event, worked as physicians, and were just as involved in their families’ lives. It felt like such an honor to be part of something so impactful and see there are women physicians who are making it work for them. At that time, it was an in-person event in my home city of Chicago. I met with other students from local medical schools, mostly near the complimentary candy cart. At the Awards Luncheon, there was an overwhelming sense of comfort and community where to my left I would see my classmate volunteers and my right, the female attending physicians I worked with at my medical school. We were all there for the same commonality, regardless of level of training.
The following year, the pandemic struck and Women in Medicine Summit became an online event. At this point, I became incredibly involved on the committees, helping with social media graphics and becoming a Student Lead. Even in the midst of a pandemic, the overwhelming interest from students wanting to get involved was encouraging. The more incredible part was this allowed the Women in Medicine Summit to go international, recruiting student volunteers from other countries. The Zoom fatigue was real but the Summit offered a respite from the chaos of the world. I was able to still connect with volunteers over social media, find research mentorship, and the message was still the same: amplify women in medicine and work towards gender equity.
This leads us to my third year, this most recent Women in Medicine Summit. I am now a fourth-year medical student, frantically putting together my residency application during the same weekend. It is a virtual event again but we are all Zoom connoisseurs at this point. The Medical Student pre-conference was hosted the night prior. I quickly dashed across the entire campus to find a quiet place to join after an on-call day on my intensive care unit rotation ran late. I joined as Dr. Brittani James, our keynote speaker, was sharing her story of the obstacles she faced being a Black, female physician. We then went into breakout rooms where I was a panelist for the Advice for Clerkships, mentoring the first- and second-year students, passing along the wisdom I acquired from my peers. The following day was then beginning of the Summit. I had rounds that morning, but I continued to log in any chance I got. As Student Lead, I had to help fill open volunteer slots and make sure everyone had what they needed.
Throughout rounds, my phone was continuously buzzing with messages from Slack and Twitter. Following rounds, I tuned into the sessions while simultaneously working on my patient notes, still ensuring the volunteers had what they needed to succeed. This continued throughout the afternoon with it ending calmly presenting my poster on the gender gap in patient safety attitudes at the virtual Poster Walk. It dawned on me how the busy, multi-tasking life we see so many women physicians juggle was something I was already becoming accustomed to as a student. It felt crucial to participate in this Summit while also managing clinical duties. It was exciting at the time, seeing how capable I am but how long could I keep this going? It is no wonder that women physicians experience higher rates of burnout compared to their male counterparts. Even in the disarray of my Summit weekend, I felt this conference was worth it, getting a recharge for the gender equity mission and the much-needed boost to know you are worth it. You are making a difference in medicine even as a student and you have a whole community of women physicians and HeForShe advocates backing you up.
People have asked me why I keep going to the same Summit every year, with the belief that the content is always the same. But that is the beautiful thing about this Summit, I learn something new every year. And better yet, I get to connect with new people. I walk away (or log off) just as inspired and empowered to continue making a difference every year.
We continue to face an uphill battle as medical students. It can be so easy to become numb to the fact that we are working our tails off constantly, always trying to go above and beyond to stand out as women in medicine. We fall under the belief that working hard enough, we can get that recognized for that award or put up for that promotion. We see what our predecessors have experienced, the work they put in to get to where they are. While they have laid down a path, it is up to us to turn that path into a road, making it accessible to everyone in medicine. The work is going to continue to be grueling but it is never too early in your medical career to find your community and know your worth.
Christina Brown is a fourth-year medical student at Rush Medical College of Rush University. She is the Student Lead for the Women in Medicine Summit and the Region 6 Director for the American Medical Women’s Association Medical Student Division. You can follow her on Twitter @ChristiMedBrown. Christina has no conflicts of interest to report.
Illustration by Jennifer Bogartz