The missing doctors: why do most women drop out of practicing medicine?

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article was exclusively written for The European Sting by Ms. Yusra Abid Shah, a Pakistani 5th year medical student in Oman. 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.

It is very easy to find women in medical schools, in fact in some countries, like in my home country Pakistan, female students make up 85% of the student population and yet they form the minority of the health workforce for most countries. This imbalance has led to a severe shortage of doctors in some regions, which has forced national medical councils to make reckless decisions. 

An article published in 2018 showed that Tokyo medical university falsified the test scores of female applicants to stop them from entering their school because they believed that once they were married and had children, they would be unable to continue their duties as doctors. Other studies have also shown that very few women chose to continue studying and specialize, hence most medical specialties are male-dominated.  

Why do so few women proceed into the workforce or pursue specializations?

Women who choose to marry and have children find it very difficult to continue into the workforce because of poor working conditions. Hospitals and health institutions provide inadequate support for women, and there is also a lack of childcare facilities. Another major contributing factor is the stereotypical gender roles and societal norms that dictate women as the primary caregiver because of which they receive little to no help in child rearing. Hence women must often decide between furthering their careers or starting a family. This is also one of the biggest reasons why a very small number of women choose to study further and specialize. To become a specialist, doctors must work full time, which is often a challenge for mothers who must also care for their children. Other reasons for discontinuation include harassment and gender-based discrimination by their male colleagues.

How do we fix this problem? 

Working conditions have to be improved; hospitals need to become more accommodating to women by allowing more flexible hours of work and introducing part-time specialist training. Most importantly, gender roles need to be redefined. Men need to start advocating for and supporting women in the workplace, and they need to play a more active role in childcare. Health and labour ministries must introduce paternity leave and modernize these policies so that one partner does not bear all the responsibility of parenting.

In addition, countries must create and develop mandates for Equal Employment Opportunity so that both male and female doctors can thrive and have equal opportunities, and these laws must also address and bridge the significant pay gap that is persistent across medical specialty and country of practice.

Finally, male doctors who harass and make sexist remarks against their female counterparts must be held accountable for their action. Directors of the respective healthcare facilities must thoroughly investigate each claim, and those found guilty must be penalized.

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