Gender Equality in Medicine: are we now so different from the Middle Ages?

Dr Tedros WHO__

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of World Health Organisation (PAHO/WHO, 2017)

This article was exclusively written for the Sting by Ms Barbara Marinho, a Brazilian medical student at Universidade Potiguar, Brazil. Ms Marinho is affiliated to the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA). The opinions expressed in this piece belong strictly to the writer and do not necessarily reflect IFMSA’s view on the topic, nor The European Sting’s one.

Do you recall of any notable female physician from your history classes? Or maybe from science classes? Any female “equivalents” Hippocrates or Galen? Despite the lack of appreciation and knowledge regarding women in medicine, they existed, and perhaps this fact has influences in today’s world.

About hundreds of years ago, women who played any role in treating people were called healers, and there was only very few of them. Those who manage to obtain this position had to face several challenges towards their proper right to care, as they were not able to gain medical training from surgeons. They were saw as incompetent and dangerous in the eyes of male practitioners and church, and when the opposite was proved, they were branded as witches.

Today, fortunately, we are not judge as insane while making the decision of doing medicine anymore. We are not accused of black magic when our performance is outstanding, neither persecuted by religious institutions because of our vocation. The world has changed, and we keep fighting for gender equality. As the reality of society reflects in scientific development, we had the chance of becoming remarkable scientists. We became Nobel winners, WHO leaders, and many other practitioners who worked hard in their everyday life to care for the sick and the injured, but we still have many challenges to face.

Despite our achievements, medicine is still dominated by male figures, salaries are still not equal, and we are given less opportunities. According to the Journal of Woman’s Health, even when we constitute the highest proportion of the physician workforce, we are still underrepresented in occupations of prestige and leadership. In many countries as Japan, the low number of female physicians reflects the social belief that motherhood and careers should not be united –  not too different from what happened in the Middle Age.

Last year, the JAMA published a study from Harvard compiling the extend of the payed gap in medicine, analyzing the salary of 10,000 physicians, and the results were unbelievable: $19,878 per year of gap, even after adjusting factors of compensations as age and experience. Before that, the gap averaged $51,315 a year. Despite that, in countries as Scandinavia, Sweden, and Denmark, the almost equal number of female and male physicians have coincided with work-life policies, the belief that childhood and work can and must be combined.

Traditional beliefs of gender roles can shape disparities in women practicing medicine all over the world, and the understanding about different experiences from different regions can vary dramatically. Increasing participation of female students in the medical field is the first step towards gender equality, and depends directly from social policies. Today, 46% of medical practitioners in training and half of all medical students are female. We have a long way to go, and we will keep fighting for equality.


  1. Bonham K.S., Stefan M.I. (2017) Women are underrepresented in computational biology: An analysis of the scholarly literature in biology, computer science and computational biology. PLoS Comput Biol13(10): e1005134.;
  2. Ramakrishnan, A., Sambuco, D., Jagsi, R. (2014) Women’s Participation in the Medical Profession: Insights from Experiences in Japan, Scandinavia, Russia, and Eastern Europe.  Journal of Women’s Health23(11), 927–934.;
  3. Mayer, A.P., Blair, J.E., Ko, M.G., Hayes, S.N. et al (2014) Gender distribution of U.S. Medical School Faculty by Academic Track Type. Journal of the Association of American Medical Colleges, vol. 84, issue 2, pp. 312-317;
  4. Jagsi, R., Griffith, K.A., Stewart, A., Sambuco, D. et al (2013) Gender Differences in Salary in a Recent Cohort of Early-Career Physician-ResearchersAcademic Medicine : Journal of the Association of American Medical Colleges88(11), 10.1097/ACM.0b013e3182a71519.

About the author

Barbara is a Brazilian medical student at Universidade Potiguar. She was also a student of Biomedical Sciences focusing in Neuroscience and Epigenetics at Queen Mary, University of London, and Plague and Disease in Medieval City at University of East Anglia, winning the Sqore Scholarship Award and the Santander Universities Scholarship of 2017. She works in Medical Education and Sexual and Reproductive Health at the IFMSA Brazil, and her interests are Gender Equality, LGBT Health, Neurosurgery, and Aerospace Medicine.


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