Tackling the Gender Gap in Medicine Requires Tackling the Gender Gap in Burnout

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This article was exclusively written for The European Sting by Ms. Marcela Trocha, a second year medical student at Poznan University of Medical Sciences (PUMS) in Poland. 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.


For the first time in history, there are more female medical students in the United States than there are males, with a 2019 report by the AAMC finding that 50.5% of medical students were female, and counting. These figures suggest that the future of medicine will see more female physicians than it ever has before, but is this trend enough to say that gender equity in medicine will be achieved?

A growing number of female physicians entering the workforce brings with it new obstacles that must be tackled, relating to, among other things physician burnout. Burnout is defined by the ICD-11 as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. Current measurements show that female physicians are more likely than their male counterparts to report feelings of burnout, and this difference may be due, in part, to the different ways in which men and women tend to burn out. While men are more likely to feel depersonalization as a symptom of burnout, women are more likely to report emotional exhaustion. All of this could mean that it is easier to quantify burnout among female physicians, but it could also be underlining the greater burden faced by women in the profession.

Burnout is a common and growing phenomenon in the field of medicine, but in female physicians, there are added elements that play important roles in its development. Specific factors that have been identified as contributing to burnout include specialty, workload, work-life integration, gender discrimination, and sexual harrassment. Some of these factors are more heavily experienced by women and so have a greater systemic impact on female physicians in the profession. When entering certain male-dominated specialties, women report imposter syndrome and experience sexual bias, on top of the challenge of work-life integration. Across specialties, females are more likely to experience sexual harassment, stereotypes, and the bias of parenthood. All of these issues may play a role in the development of burnout and must be addressed if we want to truly achieve gender equality.

So what can we do to ensure that the future of medicine moves towards closing the gap, not only in terms of gender, but in all areas of diversity? A push for systemic change is necessary and three distinct factors play vital roles in facilitating this change. First, qualities of those in leadership roles must reflect the true diversity of medicine, and so must be held by more women and physicians of color. Next, parental leave policies that are equal and understanding need to be developed, so that the decision to parent is not treated as a “punishment” but is welcomed as a choice. Finally, there must be continuous investment in developing research on physician burnout, calling for systems-wide interventions aimed at burnout prevention and management, and government policies addressing burnout in physicians that is stratified and specific to various populations. The future of medicine is bright and more diverse than ever before, but in order to embrace this future, we must work to ensure that the entire workforce is protected. 

References

Berg S. Why women physicians are more likely to experience burnout [Internet]. American Medical Association. 2019 [cited 24 March 2021]. Available from: https://www.ama-assn.org/practice-management/physician-health/why-women-physicians-are-more-likely-experience-burnout.

Boyle P. More women than men are enrolled in medical school [Internet]. AAMC. 2019 [cited 24 March 2021]. Available from: https://www.aamc.org/news-insights/more-women-men-are-enrolled-medical-school.

Burn-out an “occupational phenomenon”: International Classification of Diseases [Internet]. Who.int. 2019 [cited 24 March 2021]. Available from: https://www.who.int/news/item/28-05-2019-burn-out-an-occupational-phenomenon-international-classification-of-diseases.

Templeton K, Bernstein C, Sukhera J, Nora L, Newman C, Burstin H, Guille C, Lynn L, Schwarze M, Sen S, Busis N. Gender-Based Differences in Burnout: Issues Faced by Women Physicians. NAM Perspectives. 2019;. 

About the author

Marcela Trocha is a second year medical student at Poznan University of Medical Sciences (PUMS) in Poland. With a bachelors in physiology and neurobiology and a masters of science in global health, Marcela hopes to specialize in gynecology and work to improve health equity. She is an advocate for women’s rights, and a member of IFMSA-Poland, as well as the co-founder of The Women’s Initiative at PUMS.

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