On February 3rd this year, we celebrate the third annual National Women Physicians Day, which is the birthday of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to earn a medical degree in the United States. Here at BoardVitals, about 80% of our hardworking medical team is made up of female physicians. To honor them on this special day, we asked two of our female medical editors about their experiences as a female physician in the medical industry.
Lara Dennis, MD
Lara is from Springfield, Illinois and she graduated from the University of Illinois with both her B.S. in Chemistry and M.D. She did a radiology residency at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, MI and her fellowship in breast imaging at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. She has been practicing for 20 years and specializes in Diagnostic Radiology with a subspecialty in Breast Imaging.
Karen Shackelford, MD
Karen is from Pennsylvania and attended Mississippi State College for Women, now Mississippi University for Women. She is a mother of four children and actually didn’t think of pursuing medical school until after she spent a few years as a stay at home mom. She went back to school to finish her degree to earn a doctoral degree in clinical psychology. After her first two psychology courses in stats and neuroanatomy, her advisor suggested medical school. She applied to med school and graduated from the University of Mississippi School of Medicine. She did her residency in the Department of Emergency Medicine.
How did you end up in your specific specialty?
“Breast imaging spoke to me because of its unique qualities of patient interaction and education and its way of making one feel they are making a difference.”
“I chose Emergency Medicine because it melded medicine and surgical disciplines and appeared to offer some flexibility during 4 years of residency, allowing me to balance work/life, family responsibilities, and community involvement. Another key reason I was attracted to EM was this: I didn’t want to run a medical office, be a small business owner, and worry about how people would pay for their care. That part of medicine is not something that attracts me. Furthermore, I love the variety of problems encountered in the ED, the privilege of engaging with people from all parts of the community, and the flexibility.”
According to the Medscape Female Physician Compensation Report, male physicians (65%) still greatly outnumber female physicians (35%). What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve had to overcome in order to thrive in a male-dominated industry?
“There is still a lot of misogyny in medicine. Women are expected to smile when they are unhappy, be critiqued on physical appearance, and not appear “too” strong or assertive. It’s a very difficult balancing act.”
“My attitudes and upbringing may have been my biggest challenge. Tellingly, when I took my first job after residency, I didn’t even ask about my salary because I was afraid to appear too aggressive. Male approval, not just as physicians but as women, was the old gold standard from which many of us derived self-esteem – and that approval was often based on a particular set of feminine qualities – charm, attractiveness, submission. The degree to which that affects women in medicine depends upon many factors, including family of origin, local social mores, and cultural values. Times have changed, but we have to be realistic: a lot of this still permeates society.”
Is there a female physician you admire or look up to? If so, who is it?
I really admire my ob-gyn. She was a year behind me in med school and her daughter was a friend of my youngest daughter. She is hilarious, smart, aggressive, and hardworking. I knew she could handle any emergency that arose, so I felt completely confident as she delivered my daughter’s first child. I watched her daughter grow into a lovely young woman, so that was fun.
If you’re a mother, how do you stay sane while juggling both your career and your family?
“I have a college girl pick up the kids after school and do homework so that I don’t have that hanging over my head when I get home. I pay to have the house cleaned and a lot of the easy errands run. Then I have time for just down time with the kids.”
“Honestly, my family would ask “How would WE have stayed sane if you hadn’t gone to medical school?” Many women with children who have not been able to achieve personal goals look to their children to vicariously fulfill themselves. Many women in medicine are very goal-directed and have a lot of energy. When I found myself becoming a Texas cheerleading mom, I realized that the healthy thing was to get my own life. Work kept me sane. Two birds, one stone.”
What anecdotes have been said to you or have you heard about female physicians?
“My lab partner would frequently report back what one older male doctor or another would say to him at cocktail parties, usually something like “She is taking a place away from some young man.” Or this: “She doesn’t need a job, her husband provides. She shouldn’t take a place from some man who has to support a family.” Let me be clear, this was 1990, not 1950. It wasn’t about a job, either, it was about the opportunity to engage in life. Another male doctor introduced by one of my classmates looked at my 12-year old son in a buffet line at a brunch and said, “I am sure you need your mother at home, not in medical school.” My son politely corrected him.
There have been some unpleasant moments. I watched a member of the surgical faculty flash photos of nude women in chains and bondage stuff to a med school class as he talked about careers in plastic surgery. I knew him socially and he wasn’t a bad person, but can you ever imagine a woman physician doing that? I can’t. Why do women have to be so much better to do the same job (in many cases for less money)? The powerpoint peep shows continued through the years and although I am definitely not a prude, I found it annoyed the hell out of me and I was embarrassed for an older woman on the faculty who was definitely placed in an uncomfortable position by her junior residents.
I was the only woman in my program for two years. I watched a highly recruited female faculty member, who repeatedly challenged the primarily male residents, chased out of the department, after a resident retreat in which they complained that she was a homely lesbian and the chair encouraged them to find reportable events.
I was subpoenaed to testify in a sexual discrimination case against our chair, by my female faculty mentor. The acrimony was disruptive. Both women were done in academic medicine. Fortunately, I revisited my residency program and attended grand rounds for months many years later and I was delighted to see so many women in the department, marked improvement in lectures, general professionalism, and collegial atmosphere.”