Female leaders in medicine: The wait is over

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article was exclusively written for The European Sting by Ms. Anja Božić, a 5th year medical student from Zagreb, Croatia. She is affiliated with the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA), cordial partner of The Sting. 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.

“If society will not admit of woman’s free development, then society must be remodeled.” These were the words of Elizabeth Blackwell, first woman to get a medical degree in America in 1849 (1). The enthusiasm that continued to grow among women who were eager to practice medicine resulted in Enabling Act in England, in 1876. It accepted both male and female to practice medicine as doctors (2).

Almost 150 years after this breakthrough, situation is unquestionably different and surely prosperous. In 2019, 50.5% of all medical students in America were women. This development is likewise noticeable in Europe, Canada and the Middle East with statistics showing that women make 75% of physicians in some European countries (3).
In spite of this, women are constantly behind and lessened when it comes to succeeding academic promotion, taking leadership positions or receiving research funding. For instance, female made up only 18% of all department chairs in 2018 in the USA (4).

How is it possible that circumstance for women in medicine can simultaneously be thriving and yet so frustrating?

Authority and leadership in medicine is typically reckoned as agentic, implying on characteristics such as dominant, confident, assertive and decisive. The problem arises when female doctors, for instance on consultant level, display these traits. A lot of people find it off-putting and perceive it with a refusal since they didn’t demonstrate so called gender-congruent attributes, i.e. warm, caring, friendly or considerate. Contradictory, when meeting this requests, they are distinguished as unsuccessful leaders. This is called female “double bind” (5). Moreover, in an international survey of 11 781 anesthesiologists from 2020, 34,6% of women and only 4.7% of men agreed with the statement “My gender is a disadvantage when competing for a leadership position in my department.” (6)

When looking at this data, one cannot be indifferent and simply look as this “leaky pipe” continuously interferes with women’s aspirations. As if making decisions that potentially affect larger group of people isn’t nerve-racking enough for everyone, gender-bias and balancing conventional expectations come as additional obstacle for women. Not only does this diminish female abilities, but affects their financial, social and physical parts of life.

At least medicine as science should remind us of one basic point and that is the meaning of proven facts. What more talks about someone’s success, achievement and professional values than its work results. No gender should ever get in a way with it.

Shutting one eye to reality can lead to short-term problem avoidance, but can it bring long standing success?
One thing is for sure, society is not using 100% of its values and the remaining are called FEMALE.


1.    https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/elizabeth-blackwell

2.         Mend the Gap: The Independent Review into Gender Pay Gaps in Medicine in England – December 2020. :373.

3.              Al-Busaidi IS, Sharif K, Hassan A. Gender, Geographic, and Socioeconomic Representation in Medical Student Journals: A Cross-Sectional Analysis. Published online 2021:6.

4.   https://www.aamc.org/data-reports/data/2018-2019-state-women-academic-medicine-     exploring-pathways-equity

5.         Critchley J, Schwarz M, Baruah R. The female medical workforce. Anaesthesia. 2021;76(S4):14-23. doi:10.1111/anae.15359

6.         Zdravkovic M, Osinova D, Brull SJ, et al. Perceptions of gender equity in departmental leadership, research opportunities, and clinical work attitudes: an international survey of 11 781 anaesthesiologists. Br J Anaesth. 2020;124(3):e160-e170. doi:10.1016/j.bja.2019.12.022

About the author

Anja Božić is a 5th year medical student from Zagreb, Croatia. Currently, she is working as Local Officer on Research Exchange in CroMSIC, member of IFMSA. She is a passionate nature lover, always wishing to overcome boundaries and engage in new extracurricular activities. One thing she believes the most is that working on yourself is a lifetime project.

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