STRAIGHT TALK – Women in Western Medicine



As a female student aspiring to become a Public Health Practitioner, I am constantly reflecting back on the feats that physicians, allied health practitioners, health policy makers and other renowned professionals have accomplished. But one trend that seems to discolour the glorious history of World Medicine is the bias that has shunned women from entering this field for years. Unfortunately, the real-time outcomes of your hard work do not solely depend only on your talent. There is a very important factor that has the power to overturn your success story- GENDER. The medical field, for all its honorable service to mankind, is no exception to this worldly fact! But are we now in a better position to combat this?

Going back a little

Diving a little deeper into the history of women in medicine, we come across one of the most inspirational figures who continued to campaign for reform despite societal pressures and deteriorating health – Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell. She was the first woman to receive an M.D. degree from an American medical school. But this achievement came with its own struggles. Dr. Blackwell was rejected by all, except the faculty of the Geneva Medical College in 1847 where the faculty asked the male students to vote on this decision. The students voted a “yes” in humour – and as a result of that joke, Dr. Elizabeth went on to open the New York Infirmary for Women and Children.

Although this was the first time a female was able to formally achieve a degree in Medicine, the involvement of women in the fields of midwifery and nursing dates back up to 620 AD where Rufaida Al- Aslamia became the first female nurse in Saudi Arabia. Back in the day, women were constantly employed in these fields because of their keen sense of knowledge and experience in childbirth. This practice saw a slight dip, with the emergence of certified male physicians who put up a stance against these women because they didn’t have a degree to practice on female delivering patients. Interestingly, the profession saw light again in 1911 when the first midwifery school, Bellevue Hospital School for Midwives was opened in New York City.

Stats Today

All of these developments led to the concentration of women in the field of gynecology and obstetrics, dermatology, allied health sciences and pediatric medicine. Dr. Atul Grover, in his article “The Good and Bad Statistics on Women in Medicine” in the Wall Street Journal, reports that “Today, nearly a third of all practicing physicians are women, and they account for more than 60% of pediatricians and more than 51% of obstetricians/gynecologists”, while only 38% of general surgery trainees are female. Are these numbers a product of sheer interest or are there underlying factors that force women out of other medical practices? Another trend that worries statisticians is that “although the number of women graduating from medical schools in US and Canada… [is roughly equal], women continue to face challenges in moving into academic leadership positions.” This has been explored in the research titled “Women in Academic Medicine Leadership: Has Anything Changed in 25 Years?” by Rochon, Davidoff and Levinson. Indeed, these are the questions we need to be asking!

Shout out to women in UAE:

We are fortunate to be residents of a country like the United Arab Emirates that has recognised the potential that women practitioners possess and has given them the required platforms to wield that potential. Dr Ayesha Almemari, of Mafra Hospital in Abu Dhabi, is the first Emirati to specialise in emergency medicine after receiving her training in the UAE, Bahrain, Canada and Ireland.

Another important mention in this field would be Dr. Zulekha Daud who came to the UAE in 1963 as a trained gynecologist and made her mark in the sector, starting out with her first job in a makeshift, desert setting hospital, and now owns her own hospitals as an entrepreneur who has found home in the nation! (BBC Asia)

Food for Thought:

As always, I’d like to leave you on a more hopeful note, as women all across the world are becoming pioneers in hospice and palliative care, the medical systems should realise the potential and skill that women bring to the table- be it in the field of surgery or medical academia. In the meantime, it is important that we continue to equip ourselves and sharpen our talent to break these stereotypes.