The hardships of career advancement for women in medicine

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This article was exclusively written for The European Sting by Ms. Fjona Manja, a third year medical student in The Catholic University Our Lady of Good Council, Tiranë, Albania. 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.

Who is the father of medicine? The majority would correctly answer Hippocrates. However, if I asked about Metrodora, hardly any would know that she was the first woman to write a medical textbook. Similarly, only a handful would know that the first female doctor was licensed more than 6 centuries after the first male doctor. While the first medical school was founded in 1123, Dorothea Erxleben was licensed only on June 12, 1754. These 6 centuries show how hard it was for women to study and create a career in medicine.

In the ever evolving days of the 21st century women have managed to win the right to study medicine and have even won prestigious prices for their endeavors in the medical field. Yet, it is not easy for women to reach the leading positions in medicine. In the last three decades the number of female doctors has risen steadily. According to Eurostat in 2018 the gender spilt of physicians in the 27 countries of EU was balanced. Optimistic statistics were reported from Estonia and Latvia where three quarters of all physicians were women.1 Nevertheless, the number of these female doctors to achieve leading positions is considerably lower than that of their male counterpart.

But why do women find it so hard to break the glass ceiling?

Women find it harder to be promoted because of their gender. Firstly, most of the employers think that women cannot perform well when they become mothers. Consequently, with the fear of losing their job, female doctors are left with the dilemma of returning back to work or finishing their childcare leave. On top of that the average length of paid leave in some of the top US medical schools is around 8 weeks, even though the American Academy of Pediatrics has endorsed a minimum of 6 months of paid leave2. Women physicians find themselves overloaded with work and parental duties since their working environment lack programs to support caretaking or lactation.

Furthermore, women face sexual harassment whether it be from their colleagues or their patients. The mentality that men do it better and women don’t because women can’t, is still strong in many countries. Many still think that men should lead and women have to follow, even though gender has nothing to do with capabilities. Therefore, men still dominate the profession making it harder for women to thrive in leadership.

So, how can we help achieve gender equity in medicine?

First and foremost, we need to advocate for family – friendly policies. This way female physicians won’t need to choose between a career and family. In addition, we need to stop the sexual harassment and the disregard women face when they try to breakthrough in the medical field.

 Gerty Cori, Virginia Apgar and Rosalind Franklin are only some of the notable female physicians that have made discoveries that were milestones in the advancement of medicine. They prove us that women don’t need centuries to catch up to men, they only need more support.


About the author

Fjona Manja is a third year medical student in The Catholic University Our Lady of Good Council, Tiranë, Albania. She is a member of the Albanian Committee of Medical Students.

Being raised in a progressive environment she was always taught the ideals of gender equity. Therefore, she is really interested in the feminism and women rights movement. She is passionate about helping women advance in the medical field.

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