Women have been playing second fiddle to men for ages, but why is this still the case in 2017? Why are women still undervalued in today's society?
It is well known that women in various well-appointed positions still earn less than men in comparable positions. Female physicians on average earned close to $20,000 less than male physicians as of 2015, according to a study that compared the salary information of public employees in 24 medical schools. (JAMA Intern Med 2016;176:1294.)
This is the number the researchers got, even after adjusting for age, tally of published papers, years of experience, and specialty type. The wage difference averaged $50,000 without the adjustment. Why is there still such a lag in bridging this gap? Why are women still mistaken for nurses while their male counterparts (who may or may not be a nurse) are believed to be physicians even though both are dressed in professional attire?
Some say a reason for this discrepancy may be that women have been underrepresented in medicine, but the data do not seem to support this. A 2016 American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) report showed that more than 46 percent of all medical school graduates since 2012 have been women, a rate that has remained steady. (http://bit.ly/2ngMRWe.) One cannot help recognizing the role that gender bias plays in instances where the archaic perception is not to view a woman in a leadership role.
Overwhelming evidence shows that the number of women in the workforce with college and graduate degrees has continued to climb and, in some cases, has surpassed that of men. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that women make up 50 percent of the overall working population, but only 26 percent of the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workers are women. (“Disparities in STEM Employment by Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin,” Sept. 13, 2016; http://bit.ly/2ngNv66.) The AAMC's 2015 State of Physician Workforce Data Book reported that 33.3 percent of physicians actively practicing in the United States were women. (http://bit.ly/2ngUOKY.) Another AAMC report showed that women represented 47 percent of medical students, 46 percent of residents, 38 percent of full-time faculty, 21 percent of full professors, and 15 percent of department chairs. (http://bit.ly/2ngNeAf.)
Perhaps our society is suspended in the past, in which doctors were nearly always older, white men in lab coats. With this image posited as the norm, female physicians simply don't “look” the part. STEM fields have typically been dominated by men, so it is critical to encourage young girls to pursue these careers. Having a diverse group of people involved in science leads to discoveries that would have been missed without women at the table. The recently released movie and book, Hidden Figures, embodies female mathematicians, engineers, and computer scientists, and shows how they were instrumental in the success of countless NASA missions. Other less notable female heroes of science who made remarkable discoveries included the astronomer Caroline Herschel, who was the first to discover a comet, and Rosalind Franklin, who was the first to produce an x-ray image of DNA that eventually led Watson and Crick to the discovery of the double-helix DNA structure.
A New Reconstruction
Skilled professional women often find themselves having to prove their aptitude to their colleagues, superiors, and subordinates, a burden that professional men seldom face. Data now support that men and women practice medicine differently, and that female physicians may even have more favorable patient outcomes despite the roadblocks they face. Tsugawa, et al., found that the 30-day mortality and readmission rates of elderly patients cared for by female internists were lower compared with those cared for by their male counterparts. (JAMA Intern Med 2017;177:206.) This may be because women tend to be better listeners and communicators than men, and they tend to involve patients more in discharge planning.
Measures can be taken to address gender inequality issues. First, we must understand and acknowledge that the problem exists before an attempt is made to address it. We should also recognize some of the strides that have been made to curb this inequity and make suggestions for change.
Legislation in place addresses equal opportunity employment as it pertains to gender discrimination, but this law does not address the implicit biases that exist. It may necessitate legislative reconstruction to address wage transparency, rewarding those who report discriminatory practices, providing safe and anonymous ways to report wage discrimination, incentivizing entry for women into STEM fields, and providing equality in family care leave. Women are typically given a finite amount of time off for maternity leave; this should also be the case for men to lessen the load of childrearing on women.
Secondly, resources should be allocated to encourage women to pursue careers in STEM. A way to garner interest among women would be to increase recruitment efforts starting in grade school. Former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, MD, said, “You can't be what you can't see.” It is no wonder that girls are not pursuing STEM careers when impressionable children are constantly bombarded via television, the Internet, and social media with images of men in high-powered roles and women in more supportive roles and with messages of women being valued more for their physical appearance than their intellectual capabilities. One way to begin to combat this is by making efforts to invest in students' exposure to these fields by recruiting female role models who work in STEM fields to engage students and inspire young girls and women to pursue these careers.
Achieving gender equality in medicine and other fields should be a collaborative effort, not one-sided. Progress benefits everyone, and it starts with a seed that has to be nourished and nurtured like many great ideas, or it will die a slow and meaningless death.
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