Women in Medicine, Then and Now

Women have been practicing medicine since its inception. Metrodora, an ancient Greek physician, wrote one of the oldest medical textbooks, and she pioneered surgical treatments for breast and uterine cancers. It is dismaying to realize that, centuries later, women still face discrimination in the medical profession. For example, in a recent study examining the effect of physicians’ attire on patients’ perception of their professionalism, women were rated as less professional than men. They were more likely than men to be mistaken for a medical technician, physician assistant or nurse.

Being an excellent medical doctor entails communicating with patients from various socioeconomic conditions, behaviors and beliefs. Physicians also need their patients to trust them. In a patriarchal society, however, that trust can be more difficult for women to establish. Doctors often have critical social roles in their communities, and are viewed as authorities in matters of health. However, many patients still do not view women as authoritative figures, especially when it comes to invasive procedures, which can be particularly fraught experiences for patients and their loved ones.

When I was a child, my mother graduated from medical school as a surgeon. She worked in a small city in Iran, near the town where we lived. Once there was a motorcycle accident, and a patient came to the emergency room in severe condition. The patient’s brothers were extremely worried, and were looking for a doctor to help as soon as possible. When my mother showed up, they got stressed out and angry while telling the personnel that they needed a “strong male doctor with a lot of experience, and not a woman!” As there was no other surgeon, my mother went to the operating room and fortunately saved the patient’s life. The brothers were ashamed, and apologized for their behavior while saying, “We never thought a woman could fix that huge mess!”

I kept that memory in my mind when I started medical school in Tehran. It is always hard to get people to trust you while practicing in a big city with many different beliefs and cultures. You cannot know what is in the patients’ minds and what they think of you. Once, a male classmate of mine was trying to put in a patient’s nasogastric tube. He was unsuccessful in his first two attempts, so he asked for my help. The patient was agitated, and did not want me to try. After a lot of talking, we convinced him, and I inserted the tube gently. Afterward, the patient told me that he never thought a woman could do something a man couldn’t!

As one of the first universities to admit women to medical school, The Johns Hopkins University was a pioneer in that respect. Although gender discrimination in medicine varies across countries, there is certainly work to be done everywhere in challenging discriminatory attitudes toward women. I dream of a day when any girl can grow up to study medicine and be accepted as a specialist all around the world, even in small towns in developing countries. The world would be a better place not only for women who work as physicians but also for the patients who need their skilled care.


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