Feminization of medicine: women’s challenges and strengths

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This article was exclusively written for The European Sting by Ms. Manoela Henriques Pinto, a 3rd year medical student in São José do Rio Preto, Brazil. 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.

In 2021, on International Women’s Day, the director general of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, highlighted the role of women in combating the pandemic of COVID-19. In his speech, he stated that women account for about 70% of the global pool of health workers and that they played an exceptional role in saving lives, however, women hold only 25% of the sector’s leadership.

Two decades ago, medicine was seen as a predominantly male career. Gradually, the acceptance of women in this field led to the feminization of medicine: women make up more than 50% of enrolled medical students (AAMC, 2019). Clearly there is a gap between the growth of the female medical population and the occupation of leadership positions. To understand the totality of the problem, we must address social and cultural factors that challenge women’s advancement and protagonism.

Patriarchal society is based on sexism and gender inequality. From birth, a child learns social gender roles and appropriate behaviors. Women are assigned the role of caring for children, home and husband, as well as abdicating, listening and pondering, being seen as vulnerable. In contrast, men are encouraged to have ambition, to dedicate themselves to work and to take risks. Thus, women have double the workload, unable to take on the responsibilities that leadership positions require. In addition, there is a tendency to assume that women reflect more before acting and devalue themselves in the face of a leadership position, while men push themselves towards opportunities that allow them to reach more leadership positions.

Women who decide and take risks also face other barriers. Institutions – as a social feature – are permeated by the sexist forces. To reach leadership positions, women face gender bias and discrimination, their abilities being doubted and judged to be uncompromised or fragile. For example, women report having their dedication questioned when they have children, as it is assumed that work will take second place. Thus, females must make daily efforts to transcend gender stereotypes. In addition, women find it difficult to obtain mentors to advance their careers, therefore lacks essential information to achieve professional success, further reducing their ability to take risks.

In short, the gender gap is far from being closed in medical leadership. The barriers created by patriarchalism permeate society and hinder women’s progress towards leadership positions. In this sense, individual, institutional and social changes are necessary in order to build a society with gender equality. At the same time, women must transform their vulnerabilities into strengths, enabling their abilities to care, listen and ponder to be used to lead with respect. In this way, it is possible to establish environments for dialogue, equality and growth. The challenges are set, but efforts are needed to overcome them, with a view to the visibility female leadership in medicine.

“Vulnerability is having the courage to expose oneself even without being able to control the outcome … if we want to be full people and leaders, we need to be vulnerable” Brené Brown.

About the author

Manoela Henriques Pinto, 21 years old, is a 3rd year medical student in São José do Rio Preto, Brazil. She is a member of IFMSA Brazil and is in love with the impact the union of medical students can cause. Through medicine, she wants to help those in need the most, especially those who are going through the process of death and dying. This is why she is interested in palliative care, to comfort and assist. She will not be impeded by gender bias and discriminative, fighting for her right to practice medicine as a woman.

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