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Report: Female physicians are much more aware of medicine’s gender discrimination than male physicians

Gender discrimination is felt much more in women physicians than it is in men, according to a new report. It found that two-thirds of the female physicians have experienced gender discrimination from a medical colleague, and 57% of them have experienced it from a patients. These numbers were 30% and 19%, respectively, for male physicians.

Though it is rarely the main factor influencing their career satisfaction, gender discrimination sometimes makes physicians feel under appreciated or frustrated with their job. Results of a new report seem to suggest that some of the discrimination is coming from colleagues. Perhaps, not surprisingly, women physicians experience the sting of discrimination more acutely than men, according to the report from Medscape

Medscape surveyed 2,341 U.S. physicians practicing across more than 29 specialties. Of them, 62% were men, 33% were women, and 5% preferred not to say. Two-thirds of the female respondents said they have experienced or known someone who has experienced gender discrimination from a medical colleague, whereas just 30% of men said the same. 

What this discrimination looks like varies from physician to physician, according to the report. Some female physicians who were interviewed said that they are often the only woman taking part in decision-making meetings, and some said they feel career advancement and residency training opportunities are hampered for female physicians who choose to have children.

Gender discrimination can also often take shape in the form of comments made by male colleagues, according to Leslie Kane, senior director of Medscape’s Business of Medicine site. When male physicians disparage the clinical diagnoses or recommendations made by their female counterparts, women physicians can feel like their expertise is being dismissed, which often leads to diminished confidence.

For example, one participant said male physicians sometimes talk over her or cut her off as she explains her reasoning for making a diagnosis. If this is happening in front of patients, it can embarrass female physicians, as well affect how patients perceive their competence, Kane added. 

When it comes to patients exhibiting gender discrimination, more women physicians report seeing prejudice compared with their male counterparts. About one-third of physicians said either they or a colleague have experienced gender discrimination at the hands of a patient. This was true for 57% of women physicians and 19% of male physicians. 

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Examples of this occur when female patients request a woman physician based on their belief that women provide empathic care than men, Kane said. Other examples include female physicians repeatedly being mistaken for nurses, or patients asking when they will be able to see “the real doctor” after a female physician completes their exam. Kane also mentioned that women in healthcare have historically faced much more flirting and lewd comments from patients than men have. 

Often, female physicians view patients’ gender discrimination as relatively harmless microaggressions, brushing off comments like “you’re too pretty to be a doctor.” This resilience is especially true among older female physicians, Kane said. She pointed out that some older physicians were beginning their careers during a time when women were not encouraged to practice medicine at all, and having this perspective often makes them feel like it is not worth worrying about small differences in treatment. One of the survey’s older female respondents said discrimination these days “tends to be petty and surmountable,” unlike “the horrific stuff of the past.” 

While society has become much more tolerant and encouraging of having women in jobs traditionally held by men, it is still not easy for women to protest when they feel disparaged. When women physicians do speak up about the discrimination they face in the workplace, they often do so in the safe space of other women, according to Kane.

“Female physicians are more likely to mention gender discrimination to other women who are patients, nurses, residents and doctors,” she said. “So, you have a bigger constellation of women who are aware of these things because they talk about it to each other. Conversely, there are a lot less likely to mention it to men. So men don’t always have the benefit of knowing about it.”

This means women physicians must openly talk about the issue with their male colleagues and administrators in order to decrease gender discrimination in their field. These conversations can educate male physicians by making them aware of situations in which they are showing their unconscious bias, and they have the potential to encourage male physicians to stick up for their female colleagues if they notice they are facing discriminatory treatment. 

Productive conversations about gender discrimination in medicine also have the potential to increase physicians’ job satisfaction. Kane pointed out that while burnout and a lack of administrative support usually top the list of factors physicians cite as the source of their job dissatisfaction, gender discrimination can also contribute to physicians’ feeling of comfort and fulfillment in their position.

Given how staffing constraints are an existential problem in healthcare right now, hospital administrators and executives would do well to address these these structural problems in the workplace.

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