Celebrating Women in Medicine

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The presence of women actively participating in medicine, particularly in the practicing fields of surgery and as midwives, nurses, caregivers and physicians, has been traced to earliest human history. Women have historically had lower participation levels in medical fields compared to men with occupancy rates varying by race, socioeconomic status, and geography.

The involvement of women in the field of medicine has been recorded in several early civilizations. An Egyptian of the Early Dynastic Period or Old Kingdom of Egypt, Merit-Ptah, described in an inscription as “chief physician”, is the earliest woman named in the history of science.

In the Chinese record in 1000 B.C.E., female physicians were in positions that encompassed activities other than traditional midwifery and herb gathering. There also were medical roles for women in the Greek and Roman civilizations.

In Rome physicians were often slaves or freed slaves; it is likely that many were women. Women who entered medicine were frequently members of medical families and practiced together with their family members.

The physician husband of a second-century woman physician wrote for his wife’s epitaph, “You guided straight the rudder of life in our home and raised high our common fame in healing—though you were a woman you were not behind me in skill” (Anderson and Zinsser).

Women have always been healers as well as caretakers; they have acted as pharmacists, physicians, nurses, herbalists, abortionists, counselors, midwives, and sage or “wise women”; they also have been called witches. In the physician role, however, society rarely permitted them to perform in the same capacities and positions as men.

In the mid-19th century, medical degrees were difficult for women to earn; and once practicing, discrimination from landlords for
medical offices left female physicians to set up their practices on “Scab Row” or “bachelor’s apartments.

The first English woman doctor was Elizabeth Blackwell, who obtained her degree and practiced medicine in the United States where the “medical women movement” was at least 20 years ahead of its British counterpart.”

“Sophia Jex-Blake, born in Hastings in England on January 21, 1840 struggled against constant roadblocks as a woman trying to earn a medical degree such as being turned down by Harvard Medical when in the States, so she decided to establish a school of her own.

Founded in 1874, the London School of Medicine for Women was the first and only place a woman could earn a medical degree in the UK for many years. Between its opening and 1911, the number of women doctors in the country skyrocketed from two to 495.

The hospital she established in Edinburgh provided women doctors with jobs and women patients with high-quality care for 80 years.

Sophia was also the first woman M.D. to practice in Scotland.

Cosmopolitanism and tenacity were required attributes of the first British women doctors

Female physicians of the late 19th-century faced discrimination in many forms due to the prevailing Victorian Era attitude that the ideal woman be demure, display a gentle demeanor, act submissively, and enjoy a perceived form of power that should be exercised over and from within the home.

The “glass ceiling” is a metaphor to convey the undefined obstacles that women and minorities face in the workplace.

Diversity in human capital brings diversity in thought, which leads to innovation, stronger teams, and better outcomes for patients. But, as it stands in 2019, women are still underrepresented in areas like leadership positions, journal authorship, and speaker invitations and are undercompensated compared with their male peers, leaving them more financially disadvantaged in retirement.

Women’s informal practice of medicine in roles such as caregivers, or as allied health professionals, has been widespread. Since the start of the 20th century, most countries of the world provide women with equal access to medical education. Not all countries ensure equal employment opportunities, and gender equality has yet to be achieved within medical specialties and around the world.

Globally, women represent the majority of nurses and midwives. The Americas (86%), Europe (84%), and the Western Pacific (81%) are regions with the highest proportion of women among nurses.

Female Innovators Who Are Changing Medicine

More and more women are treating patients, staffing public health organizations, and engineering new ways to research and solve some of the greatest health issues of our time.

Women Face a Disproportionate Risk of Contracting Infectious Diseases

Since women account for a large share of the world’s front line healthcare workers and perform most of the world’s unpaid labor in child, eldercare, and sick care, they may have an increased risk of catching infectious diseases, including COVID-19.

Exposure to infectious diseases poses a high psychological burden for women healthcare workers. A study of healthcare settings in China during the COVID-19 outbreak found that women workers reported elevated levels of stress, anxiety, and depression.

More Women Than Men Are Entering Medical School

Women are almost at parity in the early stages of their medical careers, accounting for a little more than half of medical school applicants (52.2%), matriculants (52.4%), and enrolled students (50.5%) in 2019. Women also made up nearly half (47.9%) of medical school graduates in 2018-2019. Men outnumber women in academic medicine. Just over two-fifths (42.3%) of medical school faculty were women in 2019. today in 2022,

Women face high rates of sexual discrimination and harassment from faculty and staff in medical school. Medical students who are women reported high rates of sexism (45%) and crude behavior (18%) compared with their male counterparts (21% and 10% respectively).

Although Women Dominate the Industry Overall, Few Women Advance to Leadership Positions

Women lead just 19% of hospitals. When it comes to companies in the healthcare industry, women only hold 13% of CEO roles and 33% of senior leadership positions.

A Worldwide Shortage of About 18 Million Healthcare Workers Is Projected by 2030

The World Health Organization suggests this shortage, a consequence of anticipated demographic changes and economic growth could be mitigated by gender equality initiatives. Gender can no longer be an issue inside medicine in our world; access to education and pay equity for all women is a globally dire requirement; yet, there is still a 28.0% gender wage gap in healthcare around the globe.

However, countries at all levels of socioeconomic development face to varying degrees difficulties in the education, employment, deployment, retention, and performance of their workforce. This must change.

Now more than ever, women are shaping the course of health and health care for the world’s population. Women comprise one-third of professionally active physicians in the United States and more than half of all new medical school graduates.1 They also make up 63% of physician assistants, 83% of nurses, and 88% of nurse practitioners.

JAMA NETWORK excerpt: “Much has been written recently on gender disparities in medicine and the negative outcomes that result for women.

The impetus for examining these disparities is manifold.

While we intuitively know that achieving gender equity is simply the right thing to do, there are serious stakes not only for women but also for medicine as a field and for the communities we serve that underlie the decisive need to actualize gender equity.”


SYNAPSIS: A Health Humanities Journal

Wikipedia: Women in Medicine

CATALYST: Women in Healthcare

RELATED: GRIT for Women in Medicine: Growth, Resilience, Inspiration & Tenacity 2022

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