I HAD THE PRIVILEGE of visiting with my 18-year-old niece Emily, an aspiring surgeon, right after she finished a two-week internship at a local emergency room. She sparkled with enthusiasm as she described watching doctors treat gunshot wounds, “lacs” (lacerations), and other injuries. When she didn't get queasy, even when observing surgery, one of the surgeons commented that she might have what it takes to become a trauma surgeon.
Emily has an advantage: a role model. Her 83-year-old grandmother graduated from medical school, one of four women in her class, in 1944. In her college application essay Emily wrote: “It is from my grandmother that I have taken an interest in science.” She also explained that as one of only three girls in her high school advanced-placement physics class, “I felt that I needed to prove not only to myself, but to everyone else as well, that girls are able to do just as well … in the sciences. There was no voiced opinion that I could not do well, but the numbers spoke for themselves.”
If Emily pursues her current goal and goes on from Yale to medical school, probably half of her class will be women — but she will still face many obstacles when she becomes a physician. According to an article by the Association of American Medical Colleges Women's Leadership Project, published in 2002 in Academic Medicine (77:1043-1061), women physicians earn less than their male colleagues, face more difficulties in getting help from nurses, have more patients with complex psychosocial problems, have a harder time balancing their work lives, and are more likely to burn out.
Women physicians also encounter roadblocks in attending CME courses, as our cover story, “The Great Divide,” page 24, reveals. One reason the University of North Texas Health Science Center partnered with us to conduct this research is that the number of female physicians attending their annual CME programs has steadily declined. They wanted to find out why. I hope more providers follow their lead and make gender issues a priority.
The AAMC study says that “few schools, hospitals, or professional societies have a critical mass of women leaders. … The leadership potential of most women continues to be wasted.” It's time to stop wasting that potential. We need more women as leaders in the healthcare and CME communities. As Emily wrote: “I want to become an example for girls to follow in the world of science, whether I become a surgeon, physicist, or molecular biochemist. I want to take up the role my grandmother has played in my life for the sake of other girls. She is my inspiration — an example of how one woman can shape the world, be it as a doctor, a mother, a kind soul, or as all three.”