Back in 2004, the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) said women made up about half of that year’s incoming medical students.
Based on the data, one would assume the number of women physicians would also start to rise. Yet more than ten years later, as the number of women entering medical school continues to hover around half, the percentage of female physicians remains relatively stagnant at 30%. So why the drop-off?
What’s Ailing Women in Medicine?
The question isn’t unique to medicine. A dean from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management wrote recently of a similar discrepancy in business management, where the number of women working in the field has failed to keep pace with the percentage of women earning MBAs.
The author chalked it up to the pivotal juncture in a woman’s career that she called the “Mid-Career Marathon,” when the demands at work are growing just as the ones at home are. “While ambitious men face the same shift,” wrote Kellogg Dean Sally Blount, “research finds that in the US—whether by choice, necessity, or default—women typically pick up more of the burden for meeting their families’ growing non-work needs during this phase.” The pivot point, she wrote, causes women to begin pulling back on careers.
Women: the Key to the Healthcare Talent Shortage
The same condition exists in medicine where women are particularly susceptible to the clash between demanding careers and personal lives. In 2013, faculty from Vanderbilt School of Medicine wrote about family challenges facing residents, and how the lack of child care options may be having a broad impact on the training and growth of the physician workforce. “Lack of child care during their extended training and work hours is a major stress factor for physicians-in-training and practicing physicians, especially for women,” wrote the authors in the Journal of Graduate Medical Education. “Some women appear to seek part-time positions when confronted with child care and family care issues in their post-training careers.”
For medicine, the stakes of those opt-outs are exceptionally high. Healthcare is notoriously short on employees, with the gap between open jobs and available doctors expected to expand to tens of thousands by 2025. The departure of women means a shrinking talent pool at the very moment the industry needs every potential hire.
More than Recruitment and Retention at Stake
There’s also the matter of leveraging the best talent and the most diverse skill set. Women, pointed out the Wall Street Journal, bring unique skills to the medical field. “There is some evidence that female physicians are more effective in preventive care (especially with female patients), wrote AAMC Chief Public Policy Officer Dr. Atul Grover.
And there’s more than just recruitment and retention at stake. Healthcare doesn’t operate without people. And the same work/life clashes that cause women to opt out of careers – sick children, sick elderly parents — are also challenging women’s ability to perform while in them. “Surgeons with a physician partner were twice as likely to miss work for sick-child care as surgeons with a non-physician partner,” wrote the Vanderbilt authors.
Dean Blount says a big part of the answer is affordable child care and elder care. As evidence, she points to the high number of working women in nations (such as Sweden, Denmark, and Norway) that offer it. And in fact the Vanderbilt article says onsite child care and/or backup care would answer the challenge in healthcare. Such programs are not only effective for generating women’s interest in surgical careers; they’re also an antidote to absences. One hospital told the authors that back-up care saved them a half a day per employee per year.
What’s evident is that dependent care could take on the industry’s talent shortage on multiple fronts. “For medicine to be a family-friendly as well as a gender-neutral playing field,” wrote the Vanderbilt authors, “child care and other family issues must be first recognized, and second, addressed in intentional and meaningful ways.”