Good News: More Women Are Joining The Medical Field
Women made up less than 10 percent of enrolled medical students just 50 years ago and today they’re nearly half the student body.
When I talk with my two middle-school-aged daughters about the differences between women in medicine from when I was their age to today, they look at me in disbelief. As a child, the women in medicine I knew were nurses. But they can count on more than two hands the number of women physicians we know.
Less than two generations ago, women made up less than 10 percent of enrolled medical students. Those numbers steadily increased to the current amount of 48 percent last year, according to information provided by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) in Washington, D.C.
A major uptick occurred last year with the rise of first-time women applicants by 6.2 percent from 2014. First-time men applicants rose by 3.5 percent. Overall, says the AAMC, men exceeded women by only 1,000 potential students.
One reason is that American medical colleges are making an effort to diversify in order to better serve patients, says Dr. Donald Meyer, associate dean for admission and enrollment at Eastern Virginia Medical School (EVMS) in Norfolk, VA.
“There’s been a push over the years to open medical colleges to a wide variety of people, genders and ethnicities,” he says.
While there is no quota, EVMS strives to maintain a healthy 50/50 ratio of men to women. Currently, Meyer says women make up approximately 45 percent of EVMS students.
The 43-year-old medical college has a history of women at the school with the late Dr. Georgeanna Jones who, along with her husband, the late Dr. Howard Jones, pioneered America’s first in-vitro fertilization clinic at EVMS in 1978. The clinic is now called The Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine.
Dr. Geoffrey Young, senior director of student affairs and programs with AAMC, says medical colleges are reflecting a diverse workforce. This plays a role as women increase in managerial positions including medical colleges’ faculty and administration.
“There is more of a support network and mentorship-type roles for today’s incoming female medical students,” Young explains. “There is less isolation and women on the faculty coach and counsel female students.”
When female students see gender barriers broken down, it allows for support and that is imperative for medical students, says Dr. Michelle Whitehurst-Cook, associate dean of admissions at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine in Richmond. In her graduating class of 1979, women made up just 30 percent of the student body.
Today, after graduation, more women medical professionals are going into specialties like urology, surgery and trauma care. Previously, women specialized primarily in gynecology and pediatrics.
Whitehurst-Cook feels women chose those specialties in the past because of the perception that women should assume a maternal role. In addition, these areas were also known to provide better family life.
She believes women in urology practice are needed for both genders, but in any special health issue, it is not uncommon for women to feel another woman can relate better to their case.
The increase in women surgeons, she says, is due to several factors, one being the new normal of large practices that allow for schedule flexibility.
“The huge groups (of doctors) make it easier to split the time,” she explains.
Dr. Lisa Krupka, a general surgeon with Banner Medical Group out of Nevada, agrees that it’s possible to have a work-life balance in the field, but it was her passion for the specialty that drove her into it.
“When I chose general surgery, it felt like everyone, including female surgeons, encouraged me to pick something more ‘female-friendly.’ They said that I could not have kids, or do outside activities if I chose surgery. That is simply not true. I finished residency in 2007, I have kindergarten-age twins, and I participate in marathons and triathlons.”
“I chose general surgery because I wanted to be in a profession where I would be held to a high standard,” she says. “In general surgery, I can go from seeing a woman with breast cancer, to a child with appendicitis to a man who requires emergency surgery, all in the same day.”