It was 1897. And British-born Elizabeth Blackwell was trying desperately to get into medical school. She sent out multiple admission request letters, receiving one rejection after the next. One even expressed concerns that she was trying to “break” men’s heads with a stick. She was facing gender-based bias in the field of medicine.
Breaking the Gender-Based Bias in the Field of Medicine
According to the rejection letters, all written by men, Blackwell was “intellectually inferior.” But this simply wasn’t the case, and she knew it. One letter, written by a med school dean, showed the true problem behind all the rejections.
This woman presented a threat to the men who ruled the medical industry. The dean wrote:
You cannot expect us to furnish you with a stick to break our heads with.
But it wasn’t men’s heads Elizabeth Blackwell wanted to break. Instead, she wanted to break something that would someday impact every woman with a dream of becoming doctors: gender-based bias in the field of medicine.
Elizabeth Blackwell’s Battle Begins
While working in Kentucky’s tobacco-growing district, Blackwell was introduced to the cruelty of slavery. The inhumane treatment slaves received left a big impression on her. She wrote home to her family in England about her experiences:
Kind as the people were to me personally, the sense of justice was continually outraged.
Her moral foundation became the core of her struggle to become a doctor in the US:
The idea of winning a doctor’s degree gradually assumed the aspect of a great moral struggle, and the moral fight possessed immense attraction for me.
Elizabeth Blackwell went on to become the first woman ever to earn a medical degree in the United States. She was also the first woman to join the UK’s Medical Register of the General Medical Council.
Women Pioneers Who Battled Gender-Based Bias in the Field of Medicine
“If society will not admit of woman’s free development, then society must be remodeled.” -Elizabeth Blackwell
An Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) 2015-2016 data report shows there were 281,00 women doctors actively practicing medicine in the United States. Blackwell wasn’t the only pioneer to break the cycle of gender-based bias in the field of medicine:
- Marie Durocher – This Brazilian obstetrician become Latin America’s first woman physician in 1809
- Elizabeth Abimbola Awoliyi – This West African gynecologist become the first woman doctor in Nigeria in the 1940s
Note: When Dr. Awoliyi broke Nigeria’s gender-based barrier, more than 60% of Nigeria’s girls suffered female genital mutilations. And only 8 out of the country’s 57 secondary schools allowed female students to attend.
The Diversity of Women in Medicine
Over the past century, women have chosen some very diverse career paths within the medical field. Past pioneers deserve admiration for inspiring women to become doctors across the globe, such as:
- Barbara Ross-Lee – First African American women to become dean of a US medical school
- Virginia Apgar – Revolutionized and transformed the neonatology field of medicine
- Antonia Novello – The first Hispanic and the first woman to become U.S. Surgeon General
- Joycelyn Elders – Became the first African American U.S. Surgeon General
- Margaret Chan – First women elected as World Health Organization’s director-general
Statistics on Women in Medicine in America
Today, larger percentages of women become physicians in the United States. In 1970, women represented 9.7% of US doctors. By 2010, 40 years later, this percentage jumped to 32%.
And according to stats, the presence of women practicing medicine has been associated with better health outcomes over the years.
A Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) report was published in December 2016. It shows that hospitalized elderly patients treated by women internists suffered much lower readmission and mortality rates than patients cared for by male internists.
No one knows for sure why. But Sarah-Anne Henning Schumann, a family doctor, says that in general, women are better listeners, more emotionally keen and more nurturing than men.
So, does all this equate to calm waters for women in medicine today? Well, not exactly.
Challenges Women Face in the Male-Dominated Medical Industry
Even with all the strides made by women physicians, female doctors still face numerous challenges. Gender-based bias in the field of medicine still exists to this day.
Close to 50% of America’s medical students are females. However, only about 33.3% of practicing doctors in the US are women.
There’s also a serious pay gap. According to the AAMC:
- Women doctors make $20,000 less annually than male colleagues
- The gender-based gap is as high as $44,000 in neurosurgery and other male-dominated surgical subspecialties
Most professional women live busy, complex lives. For women doctors, there’s pressure to not only make it in this male-dominated industry but to thrive and excel in medicine.
Pressure Women Face as Medical Professionals
For women, recognizing hurdles pioneers like Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell overcame is key to pushing forward.
Women in medicine must become pioneers in their own rights. They must cultivate the female medical professionals of today, so they become leaders of tomorrow. This helps ensure more and more little girls and ladies take strides to fulfill their medical dreams.
In the words of Dr. Blackwell:
It is not easy to be a pioneer — but oh, it is fascinating! I would not trade one moment, even the worst moment, for all the riches in the world.
Becoming a Woman Doctor in the US
Are you a woman intrigued by the idea of becoming a doctor in the United States? If this is your dream, don’t let gender-based bias in the field of medicine deter you.
Many women physicians have broken barriers that you’ll never have to overcome. Feel free to step into the doors they’ve opened for you over the last couple of centuries. You are a woman born to practice medicine. But you must graduate from medical school first.
To get accepted into a med school in the US, you must pass the MCAT exam. This test evaluates your science skills and determines your ability to thrive as a medical student. However, preparation is key.
Make sure you’re ready to pass this exam and get a high score with Atlanta MCAT exam prep services from MedSmarter. Choose MedSmarter’s live, in-person MCAT prep course or get one-on-one MCAT tutoring from licensed medical professionals. Click the link below to learn more.