Medicine needs women doctors - yes, even those that want to have a family

6 min | Medical Careers
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John Bethell

January 18, 2012

In the 2011 book Torn, Dr. Karen Sibert challenges women to reconsider their choice of commencing medical school, citing the potential stresses that such a career will put on their family life later on. Fair enough.

She then goes on to declare a “moral obligation” of doctors to use their medical education to the fullest in the public interest and seems to frowns on all forms of flexible work conditions. Murkier waters perhaps.

Dr. Sibert’s view (as she herself points out) is not very “politically correct”. She is also fighting the tide - globally more women are now entering medical school than men.

Her subsequent op-ed in the NY Times outlines some real challenges associated with this demographic shift, but it would seem more helpful to anticipate, and perhaps plan for a different type of workforce rather than call for a return to the days of medicine as a male-dominated profession.

As a male medical graduate who has left the profession completely (what would she think of me?), I may be sticking my neck out here but I think that she misses some key points regarding the positive aspects of the feminization of the medical workforce. Leaving aside the work/life balance choice issue (after all no-one is forced to go to medical school), how might the public interest be better served by the presence of more women in medicine with all their flexible work demands?

  • Flexible workforces make better workers – yes, even in medicine. People who have a broader life experience make better doctors. Parenthood, in particular, is an excellent teacher of patience, stamina, time-management, multi-tasking, etc. – all skills that doctors need.
  • Part-time workers make better workers - the antiquated notion of the 100-hour week as “character building” has been widely dismissed as a recipe for diminished performance, burnout, and resentment. The medical profession does not score well on job satisfaction, nor depression and suicide rates. Overwork is undoubtedly a significant contributor.
  • On balance, women are better listeners – a key skill in the diagnostic process and are more likely to make clinical judgments based on facts rather than assumptions.
  • Women tend to be more empathic – they have a greater capacity for compassion and are therefore better able to deliver on this key component of the therapeutic process.
  • Women are typically less political – medicine and politics seldom sit well together. The patient is often neglected as other agendas infiltrate.
  • Women are usually less ego-driven – they are more likely to be focused on others rather than self – surely a central tenet of the practice of medicine?
  • Women generally work in multi-disciplinary teams better than men – a key component of holistic care.

As a manager of a predominantly female workforce, I value all these traits in business as well, and can easily see how they would translate positively to the medical arena.

The old concern about mothers taking time out to have families is, I believe, a massively overrated concern. Our medium-sized business has experienced a high birth rate (6 in the last 12 months) and, aside from the joy that comes from frequent baby visits to the office, I have found that staff that take maternity leave return with renewed enthusiasm, often into more appropriate roles for both parties, and extremely focused on getting the job done.

Even their initial departure, whilst mildly disruptive creates an opportunity for others, a chance to acquire new talent and for management to refresh business goals.

Dr. Sibert asserts, “medicine is different” – an assertion that I would dispute. All professions are unique, but the underlying needs of the individuals that work in them are remarkably universal.

Medicine has done well to create a workforce that is more reflective of the human race in terms of gender balance and is better for it. Let’s not turn back the clock.


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