Being a Doctor is Hard. Being a Female Physician is Harder


I recently came across this New York Times article published a few days ago citing several studies of implicit gender bias making it difficult for female physicians to rise up in the ranks of leadership positions in medicine. What this article touches on is very near and dear to my heart, as I definitely see this everyday, and even more when I was an intern in Internal Medicine taking care of hospitalized patients. 

  • "Female medical residents and physicians endure bias and a larger burden with home duties. They also face a greater risk of depression."

How true is this! I would also suggest that it's not only female physicians, but working females in general - in any occupation, whether they are pharmacists, work in corporations, etc. I can't tell you how many times my husband has texted me "What's for dinner?" - as if I was the sole person responsible for planning dinner (I know he means well, but again, this is, in my opinion, a result of subconscious gender bias). There has been a wealth of information regarding the "2nd shift," and I truly believe implicit bias is why this occurs, and having so many roles can be cognitively taxing on women who must perform well at work but also fulfill duties at home. 

A recent study published in JAMA (well-established peer review medical journal that publishes scientific studies) examines physicians in training and the correlation between depression and gender differences. Authors found that depression was higher among female physicians in training, in part due to work-family conflict.  Because female physicians continue to have the bulk of home care and family duties, despite a larger number of female physicians in the workforce, there is higher disparity among male physicians who don't carry as much a weight in family and home care duties, leading to physician burnout and more female physicians moving to part-time positions and therefore, fewer female physicians in leadership roles. 

  • “I wear a white coat; I introduce myself as doctor,” said Dr. Theresa Williamson, a neurosurgery resident at Duke. “But patients still assume I’m a nurse or medical assistant or pharmacist."

I can count on more than one hand the times a patient has mistaken me for a nurse, a medical assistant, a social worker - anything other than a medical doctor. At first, I thought it was because I was young, I looked young, and I wasn't wearing a suit or by any means in corporate attire. But after several of my colleagues echoing similar conversations, I realized that I was just making excuses for them. Sure, it doesn't help to "look young," but that alone points to the inherent biases that most people have about physicians (white, male, older, maybe with a bit of grey hair). At least having this study out there makes me feel less like a crazy person and more validated in how I feel as a female physician towards remarks like these. 

  • "These biases influence who is respected, who burns out and who is promoted."

Imagine every work day have to mentally battle implicit gender biases, while simultaneously using the rest of your cognitive reserve to treat patients and provide adequate care. Then, imagine doing all of that in a 40-60 hour work week while also coming home for that "2nd shift." It's no wonder why working women tend to go part-time, or tend to sacrifice their career aspirations over family - therefore leading to burn out or fewer opportunities for women to become promoted over their male counterparts. One step in the right direction is to open the discussion, and realize these inherent gender biases; the next, more difficult, step is to turn conversation into action. 


The first step is awareness. Now it's time for us (males and females) to examine our own biases.  Being aware of our own biases can help instigate and push for action towards decreasing these biases.  Women need a seat at the "big boys" table - and if we don't get invited to the seat, then we need to create our own table to elevate and empower other women.