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Women Physicians Must be at the Table for Public Health to Advance

Op-Med is a collection of original articles contributed by Doximity members.

Gender equity is one of the most powerful development solutions, according to U.N. Secretary General António Guterres. We cannot defeat COVID-19, climate change, or any other humanitarian crisis without dismantling the structures that perpetuate gender discrimination, he said to world leaders at a recent U.N. General Assembly. 

Dr. Lipi Roy, a New York-based physician and medical media commentator, similarly expressed the crucial role of women physicians in promoting accurate and relevant public health messaging at September's Women in Medicine Summit (WIMS) in Chicago. Her presentation, “Leveraging Medicine with Media During a Global Health Crisis,” made me realize my previous identity as a journalist did not – and should not – exist separately from my current role as a medical student. 

“Progress accelerates when women and girls speak out. Lived experience in systemic oppression has helped us understand the challenges and solutions better than anyone else,” Dr. Roy said during her lecture. 

As a woman, speaking out is challenging. There’s no guarantee that my voice will be heard, let alone valued. Above all, we first need to have a seat at the table – by invitation or otherwise. The invisible barriers to this historically unreachable decision-making table have proved steep for women … but not insurmountable.

In academic medicine, just 18% of all department chairs are women, despite women comprising more than 50% of medical school matriculants. Mending the gap in health care leadership not only does right by the female physician workforce, but also improves patient care. Diverse leadership that is representative of our patient populations translates to better patient outcomes

Studies consistently show that this inequity is not due to a lack of qualified women, but rather the oversight of women for visible roles in medicine and other sectors. 

The coronavirus pandemic redefined what it meant for physicians to have a seat at the table. The first global health crisis in the digital age challenged physicians to disseminate real-time science and health policy information through untapped channels. Doctors took to their personal Facebook and Twitter pages, using #MaskUp and #6FtApartNotUnder to advocate for social distancing and #ThisIsOurShot when COVID-19 vaccinations became available.

“The table” was not just a piece of furniture behind closed doors anymore. It became these public media platforms. For women physicians, this represented an accessible outlet to be recognized for their academic expertise, potentially leading to opportunities for promotion. 

Physicians also became essential media communicators on primetime cable news channels such as MSNBC, CNN, and Fox. Their recommendations, rooted in science, played a major role in informing the public about evolving COVID-19 safety measures. However, even on these platforms, gender disparities persisted. One study found that women were interviewed less frequently regarding COVID-19 across multiple media outlets; when they were, they had less speaking time than their male counterparts. 

Outside of medicine, women and girls suffered the most during the pandemic. Women were more likely to become unemployed, making up 54% of job losses despite comprising only 39% of the global workforce. 11 million girls were predicted to never return to school after the pandemic, becoming vulnerable to domestic violence, child marriage, and early pregnancy. Economic distress was felt more acutely by women and girls, compounded by more unpaid work and exponential increases in gender-based violence.

While women are vulnerable amid these global health and economic crises, they are uniquely positioned to act as powerful agents of change. Several women physicians enlisted in grassroot efforts to fight public health misinformation in the wake of COVID-19, including IMPACT (Illinois Medical Professionals Action Collaborative Team) and the Friendly Neighborhood Epidemiologist on Facebook. Research further demonstrates women are effective leaders both in normal times and in times of global turmoil such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Women are more likely to trust experts and possess more empathy. These are not “soft skills'' to be brushed aside, Dr. Roy said. Empathy and trust are critical skills for successful leadership. Women have more than earned their seats at the table.

The reality is that social media is a critical aspect of patient care and public health in the digital era. As physicians, we have a duty to educate and empower our patients in a way that prioritizes their health. Today, too often this health information is consumed through the internet. And while the global accessibility of social media is unmatched, the threat of misinformation is as real as the virus itself. We need the voices of women physicians and people of color to leverage the trust of our diverse patient populations and restore credibility in health messaging. This requires building collaborative relationships through science and storytelling, skills I learned in both medicine and journalism.

The voices of physicians-in-training matter, too. It’s common for medical students to be made to feel small and even be told to be small, said Dr. Arghavan Salles, a surgeon and champion for gender equity at Stanford University, during her presentation at WIMS. As a medical student, the white coats we wear, though they may be short, are a symbol of the trust society instills in our profession. As such, it’s our responsibility, even as students, to actively integrate our knowledge and expertise in public spheres and amplify each other’s voices – particularly among the most vulnerable, which often is women. 

Across all platforms for leadership and public visibility, remnants of a time when women were not allowed a seat at the table persist. Even when women are invited, their chairs are too short or uncomfortable. The barriers seem endless. But the COVID-19 has clearly demonstrated that women have played – and must continue to play – an integral role in the integration of science, policy and media (traditional and social) in order to gain visibility, become strong leaders, and transform lives through public health and medicine.

Shivani Majmudar is a second-year medical student at the University of Illinois College of Medicine interested in gender equity and medical education. You can follow her on Twitter @spmajmudarr.

Image by Varijanta / Getty

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