August 2011 Articles

Women Doctors Still Face Discrimination

Linda Brodsky, MD

The healthcare workplace has to change to improve the ranks of physicians.

By Physician Linda Brodsky ’74, Founder of Expediting the Inevitable

Linda Brodsky, MD, is a pediatric otolaryngologist who has practiced in Buffalo, New York, for the past 28 years. She is also the founder of Expediting the Inevitable, an organization dedicated to helping healthcare organizations integrate women physicians fully, fairly and flexibly. Join her at www.expeditingtheinevitable.com.

Fall 1970

I arrived at Bryn Mawr. First stop, the bookstore, then housed in a small trailer-like building. I bought Visiting Professor Kate Millet’s book Sexual Politics. In that exciting time the word “feminism” did not evoke negative reactions, but instead promised endless possibilities and the power for each of us to dream our own impossible dreams.

For me, that dream was becoming a doctor. I was bolstered by the Bryn Mawr mantra: “Work hard, get through the door, and work hard some more. Your talents and abilities to handle ‘the work’ (a mark of a true ‘Mawrter’) will propel you to the top of whatever mountain you want to climb.” And the happy ending: “When there are enough of you, women will be equal and the world a better place.”

Sound familiar? It should, but not because it’s true. Today there are enough of us, yet gender equity in the workplace is still elusive. Decades of a full pipeline of well-educated professionals…yet where are the women leaders? Certainly not in medicine. Today nearly 50 percent of medical students and nearly 30 percent of physicians are women. So why are 80 to 90 percent of medical school deans, professors, organized medicine leadership, and editors of the powerful medical journals still men? (See Women on professional society and journal editorial boards by Melinda J. Morton and Seema S. Sonnad.)

Did we get into a different pipeline? If not, why aren’t we at the top? Thousands of women physicians are still wondering why they are working for less, encouraged into specialties where it is “easier for a woman,” and unsuccessfully vying for top positions.

My story

I graduated medical school and became an academic pediatric otolaryngologist. I rose quickly and earned my tenured position as a full professor at the University of Buffalo. I was ready to become a chair.

However, when the position became available, “they” were not ready for me. Undaunted, I continued to be a team player and show them my stuff. And then, while helping prepare a report on the department for accreditation, I learned that I was grossly underpaid compared to my male colleagues at both the university and at the hospital.

Attempts at informal resolution did not work. In 2001, I filed a lawsuit in federal court. If my achievements, stature and resources weren’t sufficient to fight an unfair situation, whose would be?

When, after eight years, I had a rather large settlement check from the university in my hands, I still felt empty-handed. I lost my career as an academic surgeon. I was branded, made an outcast, and called an activist “troublemaker.” My attempt to seek justice was trumped by the rigidity of a healthcare workplace structure and culture that were from a different era.

I couldn’t let the story end there. I see a terrible problem for young women who are behind me in the pipeline. I learned that discrimination creates enormous stress and is demoralizing to the mental and physical health of women physicians. Undeserved negative perceptions and treatment as second-class participants waste precious human resources in whom enormous investment has been made by the individual and society.

Certainly, these negative effects are not in the best interests of the patients. Women physicians are inevitably going to be at least half the healthcare workforce. Without women’s full, fair, and flexible integration into the healthcare workplace, we are wasting valuable talent and short-changing the public of much-needed services.

Legal action is no solution—it polarizes and in the end marginalizes people like me. But there is a solution that will benefit everyone. This solution lies in co-adaptation of the healthcare workplace to the changing healthcare workforce.

Not just an issue for women

Evolving attitudes and current expectations of both female and male physicians transcend gender and reflect this generation’s desires to have fulfilling lives in many sectors, not just in the workplace. The healthcare workplace has to become more responsive to these realities. Failure to respond to these changing attitudes and expectations will result in a weaker physician workforce.

A transformed healthcare workplace would provide equal opportunities for women to advance, receive appropriate compensation, create flexible scheduling in the present, create a timeline over the course of a career, and be welcoming without sexual harassment or gender stereotyping. A new approach is needed to help all doctors remain vital so that each and every one of us can avoid physician burnout and stay healthy and live long, productive lives. Creating the best working environment for every physician gives the entire workforce the best chance to deliver the highest quality healthcare.

The numbers speak for themselves

The presence of women in the medical workplace is inevitable, so we as a profession must face these problems and turn them into solutions. Simply put, the pipeline needs a new destination—a workplace that is responsive to the “new traditional” workforce.


More Physicians Are Women, but…

Their numbers are on the rise and women now account for almost 30 percent of the full-time physician population. Yet they continue to be underrepresented in leadership positions in academic medicine.

Year Total Male Female
1970 334,028 308,627 (92.4%) 25,401 (7.6%)
1980 467,679 413,395 (88.4%) 54,284 (11.6%)
1990 615,421 511,227 (83.1%) 104,194 (16.9%)
2000 813,869 618,233 (76%) 195,537 (24%)
2006 921,904 665,647 (72.2%) 256,257 (27.8%)
2009 972,376 684,693 (70.4%) 287,683 (29.6%)

Chart is from the American Medical Association website, which uses Physician Characteristics and Distribution in the U.S., 2011 edition and other editions as its source.

Comments on “Women Doctors Still Face Discrimination”

  1. thank you Kim. Please join expediting the inevitable. I am hearing from women all over the country and want to build this base so we have strength. Also getting a lot of press! The support is amazing. I am so grateful. Linda

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