Women doctors must push for leadership roles

February 16, 2010

Shelley Ross

- Dr. Shelley Ross is Secretary-General of the Medical Women’s International Association, a non-governmental organisation representing women doctors from all continents. The opinions expressed are her own. Reuters will host a “follow-the-sun” live blog on Monday, March 8, 2010, International Women’s Day. Please tune in.-

The theme that the United Nations has chosen for the 2010 International Women’s Day is “Equal Rights, Equal Opportunities:  Progress for All.”  What does this mean to women in medicine?

Certainly in the developed world, women have realized equal rights and opportunities in being admitted to medical schools.  In many schools, more than 50 percent of the student population is female.  Even in the developing world, we are seeing more women as medical students.  These increasing numbers have pushed the social envelope where it is now acceptable to talk about balancing work and home lives.

Even beyond medical school, into residency training, there are opportunities for balancing life.  Part time residencies, shared residency positions, and financial compensation for maternity leave during residency are but some examples of wishes that have become reality.

Women are seen more in the surgical specialties than before, an area once dominated by the males of the profession.  The hours have improved, so that women are not eliminated strictly on the basis of availability.  There are support groups for women in surgery that make women in surgery wiser and not so all alone.

We have taught women in medicine to say no to committee work and volunteer work, but rather to leave time for life outside of medicine.  We encourage them to work part time.

We have achieved the equal rights and equal opportunities part of the United Nations’ theme as it pertains to women in medicine.  I suggest that it is time to step back and look at what “Progress for All” means from here forward.

Medicine is not a job but rather a calling.  Whether you like it or not, once you are a doctor, you are always a doctor, not just during working hours.  With the title of physician comes responsibility.  There are going to be many times when you have to give more of yourself than you think you have to give.  You need to have compassion for those for whom you care.  You need to have a significant other who is willing to jump in and take up the slack at home when you just cannot get away from work.  Your children by necessity realize that mother cannot always be there.

As we start to swell the ranks of those in medical practice, women need to step forward into the leadership positions to speak out for the health of all.  Women in medicine are fortunate to have a unique perspective on humankind that only the broad nature of our work can give us.  We understand not only the biological aspect of health but also the social determinants of health that so greatly affect the wellbeing of humankind.

If there is going to be progress for all in the area of health, women in medicine need to be the ones pushing for adequate health care for the less fortunate and the forgotten, who have no voice with which to make their needs known.  We need to make sure the “Equal Rights and Equal Opportunities” portion of the theme applies not only to medical women but to all women, by adding a gender perspective to health and health care.

This year the theme for the Commission on the Status of Women at the U.N. in New York is Beijing Plus 15.  What have women accomplished in those 15 years?  The answer is not nearly enough.  It is time that women in medicine take back the committee work, the volunteer work, the policy making and help change the world to make it better for all—women and girls, men and boys, because the world is waiting for us to do it!

So yes, we have realized “Equal Rights and Equal Opportunities” for women in medicine, but not for all women in society.  For there to be “Equal Rights and Equal Opportunities:  Progress for All,” we need to learn how to say yes again when given the opportunity to be in decision making roles.  We need to be seen as leaders around the world.  What better day to make this decision than International Women’s Day!


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