Last Updated: Sep 4, 2018
Nearly one out of three Pennsylvania physicians are women. As those numbers continue to rise, so does their ability to address the sizable gender gap that remains in medicine.
Between 2008-2018, Pennsylvania has seen a 43 percent increase in the number of women physicians, according to figures compiled by the Pennsylvania Medical Society (PAMED). This compares to an increase of 17.8 percent in the overall number of licensed Pennsylvania physicians.
“I think it takes a certain amount of courage to be able to speak up,” says Aleesha Shaik, MPH, a fourth-year medical student at Drexel University College of Medicine. “But the fact that there are so many more females in the field today allows us to rely on each other.”
As PAMED celebrates Women In Medicine Month this September, here are seven perspectives on the pace of progress:
Joannie Yeh, MD, Media, Pa.
The rise of the #MeToo movement and social media has helped women physicians better share their experiences and struggles, says Joannie Yeh, MD, a pediatrician from Media, Pa.
Dr. Yeh began networking with other women physicians a few years ago on Twitter, where she learned about many of her colleagues’ challenges. Using the hashtag #GirlMedTwitter, Dr. Yeh and several other physicians and medical trainees built an online network that has since turned into Girl Med Media, a non-profit focusing on leadership opportunities for women in medicine.
“My husband always asks me ‘Why can’t you just be a pediatrician?’ ” Dr. Yeh says with a laugh. “I think I would have been just as happy, because I’ve always had support. I want other women to have the type of support that I have.
“I am hopeful for the future. Hopefully with increased awareness of the gender gaps, and increased cohesive efforts to close the gender gaps, things will be better.”
Increasing the number of women physicians in leadership positions can lead to a more equal playing field, says Dr. Yeh.
“There are studies showing that when women go through leadership workshops, they are retained at a higher rate for leadership roles,” Dr. Yeh says. “So one of the ways to change is for women to invest in themselves and go to trainings. Generally speaking, men are more willing to take a risk and invest. Women are not. But when women do invest, their investments do well.”
Sherry Blumenthal, MD, Erdenheim, Pa.
As a retired OB/GYN physician, Sherry Blumenthal, MD, remains a passionate advocate for women in medicine. She founded and served as the first chair of PAMED’s Women Physicians Caucus
, which started in 2017, and is currently its co-chair with Lynn Michele Lucas-Fehm, MD, JD.
“There have been many changes but not nearly what should have occurred,” Dr. Blumenthal says. “That is extremely unfortunate and that’s something that I believe needs to change radically.”
Dr. Blumenthal says two of the biggest disparities are a 30+ percent salary gap and lack of support for women after child birth. Like Dr. Yeh’s experiences, Dr. Blumenthal says it’s important to educate women about these disparities and fight for change.
PAMED members can join the Women Physicians Caucus by clicking here.
“First, we need to deliver the information that there is a wage gap, there’s a leadership gap, there’s still sexual harassment. There is still an issue with having medically sound maternity leave,” Dr. Blumenthal says. “Then we need to empower women to fight for it.
“… Women are programmed to have everyone like them. You are perceived as aggressive rather than being appropriately assertive as a physician needs to be. It’s not accepted well by society. So when negotiating salary, women are much more likely to just say OK. Men are much more likely to start asking for more or to negotiate. Women need to find out what their male counterparts in the same position are earning. And then they need to advocate for themselves.”
Denise Johnson, MD, Meadville, Pa.
Denise Johnson, MD, has seen a large shift during her career in medicine. She was part of the first all-female residency OB/GYN class at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn.
That was when there were still more men in the OB/GYN specialty than women. Today OB/GYN is one of the few female-majority specialties.
In recent years, Dr. Johnson has served on Gov. Tom Wolf’s Pennsylvania Commission on Women and become chief medical officer at Meadville Medical Center in Meadville, Pa.
She says an increasing number of practice options have helped women establish medical careers while balancing family responsibilities.
“There’s job sharing. There’s outpatient only, there’s inpatient only. In time’s past, there weren’t those options,” says Dr. Johnson. “The newer generation has different work styles, different priorities.
“Physician organizations are having to make that adjustment, especially if you want to keep good people. Large organizations have been slow to make that change, but there are more and more people requiring or demanding different types of practice, so we’ve really had to adjust to accommodate that.”
As the number of women physicians continues to grow, it’s easier for them to amplify their voice, says Dr. Johnson.
“Maybe they didn’t feel like they could speak out (in the past), but they also didn’t see other people speaking out,” she says. “I think there are vocal people that help bring about change, but there are also a lot more people.
“I think medicine has become more attractive to women, because the flexibility has allowed them to practice during peak childbearing years.”
Lynn Michele Lucas-Fehm, MD, JD, Philadelphia
Data from the American Medical Association (AMA) and Kaiser Foundation reveals that 34.5 percent of physicians delivering care in the U.S. are women. An even more significant statistic: 2017 was the first time more women enrolled in medical school than men.
Yet studies also reveal that women hold significantly lower leadership positions. According to the AMA, of the women who identify themselves as leaders only 10 percent reported being department chair, Chief Executive Officer, or Chief Medical Officer.
Lynn Michele Lucas-Fehm, MD, JD, a diagnostic radiologist from Philadelphia, says one of the goals of PAMED’s Women Physicians Caucus is to encourage paths to leadership roles.
“The reasons why women have not achieved widespread leadership positions are complicated, but one factor is certainly the criteria that have been traditionally utilized to determine who will be promoted,” says Dr. Lucas-Fehm, who serves as co-chair for PAMED’s Women Physicians Caucus
. “As more and more women enter the workforce, the metrics determining promotion will change.
“The more women there are in the profession, the more equal the playing field will become. The current point of view as to what makes someone a better physician leader will evolve as the number of women in medicine increases.”
Danae Powers, MD, State College, Pa.
During her anesthesiology residency, Danae Powers, MD, noticed a strange phenomenon: she seemed to get more personal information from patients than her male counterparts.
She often wondered why. Did they think I was the nurse? Did they feel more comfortable because I was a woman?
Years later, as more women enter medicine, Dr. Powers says those types of experiences have become less common.
“I think the allowable range of expression in women has become broader,” explains Dr. Powers, who will become PAMED’s next president in October 2018. “Men could be calm, quiet, aggressive, assertive, and loud. (In the past,) women could only be quiet, not assertive or loud. That is changing, and it is a good thing.
“I think it’s a result of more and more women coming into this profession. People’s experience becomes much more a result of the individual instead of ‘Oh, that’s the girl.’ ”
Amelia Paré, MD, Pittsburgh
Plastic surgery remains a male-dominated specialty (about 12-13 percent of plastic surgeons are women, according to American Society of Plastic Surgeons). While training for surgical specialties can be time consuming and demanding, Amelia Pare, MD, a plastic surgeon from Pittsburgh, says it is possible to juggle a demanding career while raising a family.
“It is a commitment being a physician no matter how you do it,” she says. “There are a certain number of birthdays and holidays and anniversaries that you’re going to miss. I don’t think anyone does it without a very supportive partner.”
While there remains room for improvement, Dr. Pare says there is more “empathy for childbirth and child care” in medicine today.
“Working as an employed physician or working in a larger group practice, it’s almost like a beehive mentality today,” she says. “You all want a common goal – and that’s very uplifting.”
Another sign a progress: the blatant discrimination that Dr. Pare experienced in her residency is less common. When she interviewed for plastic surgery fellowships in the 1980s, more than one program told her they don’t accept women.
“They said the last female they took went on maternity leave, and they couldn’t afford to have a resident be out that long,” remembers Pare, now a plastic surgeon in Pittsburgh. “That would not fly today.”
Aleesha Shaik, MPH, Medical Student, Philadelphia
The women who enter medicine today have one advantage that previous generations of women physicians lacked: greater access to experienced female mentors.
Aleesha Shaik, a fourth-year medical student at Drexel University College of Medicine, says one of her mentors, Marilyn Heine, MD, has been critical in helping her expand upon her interest in public health and treating the homeless. Dr. Heine wrote a recommendation letter for Shaik to gain entrance into Harvard University’s Master’s in Public Health (MPH) program, and often sends her articles on homelessness.
“When I told her that I was applying for an MPH, she connected me to public health experts that she had worked with,” Shaik says. “I had many conversations with people based on her initial contact who provided me with more guidance. She has really gone above and beyond.
“Having that kind of mentorship myself makes me so much more likely to provide it to other people in the future.”
While Shaik still sees gender bias in medicine, she’s hopeful for the future.
“I am really excited at the prospect of having more females in the field to normalize our presence,” she says, “and show that we are perfectly capable of taking care of patients. Having (advocacy) groups dedicated to these issues will allow women to have a forum to share their experiences, organize, and create change.”