Women have been incredibly restricted by laws and custom until very recently. The awareness of their personhood is relatively new, and not universal. In 19th century England for example, women were deemed too delicate to read a newspaper. Over a century later, educating a female was still up for debate in much of the world. Pakistani Malala Yousafzai was targeted by a Taliban gunman for simply wanting an education in 2012. She survived and 21st century enlightenment led to her winning the Nobel Peace Prize for her passion for educating women.
The cost is greater than one individual. Sir William Wilson Hunter wrote in his 1903 book, The India of the Queen:“The degradation of the female intelligence meant the loss of one-half its brain-power to a nation.”
Today, life is better for women as a whole in the US but clearly not unequivocally. In so many countries women are still stifled. What a waste of resources - not to mention the woman’s quality of life.
Medical Pioneers - a Testament to Perseverance
Dr. James Barry
(Margaret Ann Bulkley)
A medical doctor in the British army. He graduated from the University of Edinburgh and distinguished himself as a reformer by improving conditions for wounded soldiers, as well as those of the native inhabitants. He eventually became Inspector General in charge of military hospitals.
But it turned out that Dr. James Barry was actually Margaret Ann Bulkley. The only way she could be a doctor in those times was to pretend she was a man. Apparently, her aggressive manner, skill as a surgeon, and a reputation as an accurate marksman helped with the disguise. Bias helped in this case.
Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell (1821 –1910)
The first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States. Interestingly, her sister Emily was the third woman to get a medical degree here. A friend and classmate wrote about Blackwell’s first day: “The Dean came into the classroom, evidently in a state of unusual agitation. The class took alarm, fearing that some great calamity was about to befall the College… He stated, with a trembling voice, that . . . the female student . . . had arrived. With this introduction he opened the door to the reception room and a lady ... entered, whom the Dean formally introduced as Miss Blackwell. She was plainly but neatly dressed in Quaker style, and carried the usual notebook of the medical student. A hush fell upon the class as if each member had been stricken with paralysis. A death-like stillness prevailed during the lecture, and only the newly arrived student took notes. She retired with the professor, and thereafter, came in with him and sat on the platform during the lecture.”
She graduated two years later on January 23, 1849 at the head of her class.
Johns Hopkins University Steps Up
In the 19th century, when women were considered unable to handle the rigors of a medical education, Hopkins leaders listened when four of the original University trustees’ daughters, well-educated supporters of the feminist movement, offered a deal. Martha Carey Thomas, Mary Elizabeth Garrett, Elizabeth King and Mary Gwinn proposed to raise the $500,000 needed to open a medical school, but only if the school accepted women. In 1893, three women matriculated at Hopkins’ first medical school class. The step was revolutionary.
The “Woke” World online
There are many stories about women doctors “not being seen.” When doing rounds, some are not even called doctors or not believed by patients to be a doctor. A perfect example of this lingering bias took place on a Delta Airlines flight in 2016. Dr. Tamika Cross volunteered when a flight attendant asked for a doctor to help a passenger in medical distress. The flight attendant was dismissive of Dr. Cross saying, “Oh no, sweetie put your hand down; we are looking for actual physicians or nurses or some type of medical personnel. We don’t have time to talk to you.” I still can hardly believe it, but the story was reported in the NY Times, by Christine Hauser on October 14, 2016. The story was shared on social media and attracted more than 14,000 comments, a virtual forum on difficulties that minorities face about being believed to be qualified professionals.
One of the big game changers for women is technology. The ubiquity of information available to everyone today levels the playing field. Information and education is power.
Statistics highlight that women in medicine are in a better place. Today, half of all medical students are women, two-thirds of African-American applicants to medical school are women. Women comprise more than a third of full-time academic medicine faculty. In practice, women tend to focus on preventative medicine, an important component of the new trend in medicine - population health. For once, perhaps they will be ahead in the field of medicine. About time to have that equal opportunity.
Everyone in our society needs to embrace open mindedness if we are going to deal with the complex issues of today. Open to new ideas, to the chance for all to succeed on qualifications rather than battle bias, to equality of opportunity in all relationships. Nothing essential changes except to recognize that civility, intelligence, and kindness are always the best starting point. We are poised to be interconnected, an inclusive web of all people, informed, so every individual can contribute in every society. Medicine included.
Bias is hard to overcome but not impossible. We must not hold on to backward beliefs. We must be open for attitudes to change. The next generation of doctors, and all people, should be welcomed with no bias gender or otherwise.