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February 2, 2000

The Feminization of Medicine

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JAMA. 2000;283(5):666. doi:10.1001/jama.283.5.666-JMS0202-2-1

A generation ago a woman's role in medicine was that of a patient, and the thought of devoting an entire issue to the subject of gender was unheard of. But much has changed since 1970, when only 8% of practicing physicians and 13% of medical students were women.1 In the past 30 years, the white coat has opened to increasing numbers of women interested in pursuing a career in medicine.

By the year 2010, nearly one third of practicing physicians will be women.1 What does that mean for health care? Will the "feminization" of medicine change its practice in the next century? To begin to answer that question, Assistant Surgeon General Susan J. Blumenthal, MD, MPA, delineates the issues and challenges that will confront health care in general, and women's health in specific, in the new millennium. To understand the historical role of women in medicine, Rhoda Wynn traces their therapeutic image and lineage from ancient times to the present.

Today, while 84% of female physicians are generally satisfied with their careers in medicine, almost one third of them would not pursue a medical career if again given the choice.2 Medicine demands a unique compromise between personal and professional life, but the intensity of job stressors does not appear to vary significantly along gender lines, and the conflicts that may ensue from being both a physician and a parent appear to be less a cause of job dissatisfaction than are workplace issues—the opportunity for advancement, practice control, and harassment.3 In an interview with 3 female surgeons, Valerie A. Jones takes a magnifying lens to their lives, both inside and outside the operating room.

As women have begun to practice medicine across all specialities, making inroads in organized medicine and academia, the number of female full professors is growing at a rate faster than that of men.4 Yet women are still underrepresented in leadership positions. Even if the rate of women attaining full professor rank continues to grow yearly as it has during the past 7 years, at least 25 years remain until the proportion of women at full professor rank is half that of men, despite near gender equity when entering medical school.4 Janet Bickel and Valarie Clark address one remedy to the lagging advancement of women in academic medicine: better mentoring.

Finally, this month's MSJAMA online includes a bibliography from the Women Physicians' Health Study (WPHS). The WPHS undertakes the challenge of describing who women physicians are and what they believe—assessing such differences as race, religion, specialty choice, career satisfaction, and health risks. Data from the WPHS remind us that the generalization "women in medicine" is a rhetorical device, and that female physicians are just as different as they are similar.

American Medical Association, Women in Medicine in America: In the Mainstream.  Chicago, Ill American Medical Association1995;12
Frank  EMcMurray  JELinzer  MElon  Lfor the Society of General Internal Medicine Career Satisfaction Study Group, Career satisfaction of US women physicians: results from the Women Physicians' Health Study.  Arch Intern Med. 1999;1591417- 1426Google ScholarCrossref
Simpson  LAGrant  L Sources and magnitude of job stress among physicians.  J Behav Med. 1991;1427- 42Google ScholarCrossref
AAMC's Project Implementation Committee on Increasing Women's Leadership, New women in medicine statistics. Available at: Women in Medicine Statistics. Accessed December 28, 1999.