by Jed Delmore, MD —
Dad, would you carry this box out to the car for me?” Feeling manly and helpful having carried the 15-pound box to her car, I pass my 120-pound daughter carrying a 35-pound squirming little boy, an overnight bag, diaper bag and car seat, like a Sherpa up Mount Everest, all the while laughing with my grandson. Hmm, who’s the “weaker sex”?
A study from Duke University published in 2017 looked at gender-specific survival in seven populations under extreme conditions from famines, epidemics and slavery. In virtually all populations, across almost all ages, women survived better and lived longer than men. Newborn girls were able to survive severe mortality hazards better than newborn boys, where behavioral and social differences would be minimal. Stronger? Check. Survivors? Check.
Over 70 countries have had female heads of state. Currently, Christine Lagarde heads the International Monetary Fund. Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry, physiology and medicine have been awarded to 18 women. The Nobel Prize in literature has been awarded to 16 women, and the Peace Prize awarded to 16 women. In terms of being law-abiding citizens, women have the clear lead: 95 percent of those incarcerated in U.S. prisons are men. In the past century, more international conflicts and wars were started by men than women. Leadership skills, intelligence, law-abiding and peaceful? Check.
How about gender equality? When I was a student at Texas A&M University in 1968, I had a total of six women in all my classes. Women now represent 49 percent of the 51,000 undergraduate students at A&M. As a Medical Society, a more pertinent measure of gender equality would be medical school statistics.
Data gathered from the American Association of Medical Colleges shows that women accounted for 49 percent of medical school graduates in 2007 and 47 percent of graduates in 2017. Data specific to the University of Kansas School of Medicine for the same time shows women accounting for 39 percent of graduates in 2007 and 40 percent of graduates in 2017.
Currently, 31 percent of medical school basic science departments nationally are headed or chaired by women, while 18 percent of clinical science departments are headed by women. But at the University of Kansas School of Medicine just 11 percent of clinical science departments are headed or chaired by women, and 4 percent of clinical departments are headed or chaired by women, according to AAMC data.
From a non-academic standpoint locally, things look a bit better. Female physicians hold the position of chief medical officer and chair of the Surgery Executive Committee at one hospital, and chair of the Ob-Gyn Section in both hospital systems. Female physicians have also served both hospital systems as president of the medical staff, and been elected president of the Medical Society of Sedgwick County and Kansas Medical Society. Still, leadership roles are lagging, in medicine and elsewhere. That’s nothing new, of course. As Virginia Woolf wrote, “For most of history, anonymous was a woman.”
With September being Women in Medicine month, let’s start by acknowledging that women are equally qualified for leadership positions. And then, every month, let’s all go to work on the bias that has held them back.
Sometimes it helps to look backward in order to move forward. In fall 2016, The Only Woman in the Room project, started by Drs. Anne Walling and Marilee McBoyle and supported by the MSSC, began documenting the experiences of female physicians who entered practice before 1990. The stories and the memories are powerful, humorous, emotional and sometimes disturbing in the head-shaking discrimination they recall. But by documenting those experiences, we can learn from them. Surely, young female physicians can find role models in those who went before, if only in seeing others driven to overcome challenges to become doctors.
The project gathered another collection of stories during an Aug. 14 session at the MSSC offices, and plans to do the same at the end of September. During this month’s session, veteran physicians recalled the rush of female patients coming to see them when they entered practice, patients eager to consult a doctor who looked like them.
Medicine and our society should build on that progress, by increasing the diversity of those in leadership roles. It’s surely well past time for considering women novel in any medical role and instead see them for what they are: good doctors and good leaders.