Gender Inequality Alive and Well in the School of Medicine

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Written by Alex Judd

“Today in the United States and the developed world, women are better off than ever,” writes Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg at the opening of Lean In, her self-proclaimed feminist manifesto. “But knowing that things could be worse should not stop us from trying to make them better.” The medical field would do wise to heed this call to gender equality. Despite significant progress, health sciences career prospects for men and women remain far from equal.

A few weeks ago I visited an orthopedic surgeon for a recurring shoulder injury. He is in the twilight of his career and assured me women have made great strides in medicine over the past several decades. When he graduated from medical school in 1968, there was only one woman in his graduating class. Five decades later, a full 52 percent of first-year medical school students are women.

However, Vivian Lee, CEO of U Health Care, dean of the School of Medicine, and senior vice president for Health Sciences, took to Twitter last month to remind us all that a lot of work remains to be done. She tweeted a graphic that highlighted persisting disparities in the medical field, namely that although women make almost 80 percent of family health decisions and represent a large majority of the health care workforce, they remain underrepresented in positions of leadership, are still paid less for doing the same jobs as men and continue to suffer the consequences of gender-based bias when applying for jobs.

The situation is even more dire here in Utah, where progress has failed to keep pace with national trends. While more than half of first-year medical students nationwide are women, the U’s Class of 2019 is 62 percent male. Lee recently championed an initiative to secure additional funding from the Utah State Legislature to increase the medical school class size from 80 to 120 students over two years. This is a monumental achievement. I am personally grateful for this change as it has allowed me to be a member of the U’s largest medical school class ever. However it is important to point out that men were the sole beneficiaries of the most recent and final expansion. The transition from last year’s incoming class of 102 to the current first year class of 120 saw 22 additional seats filled by men and 4 fewer seats filled by women.

That is not okay. A sustained effort needs to be made to train more female doctors in Utah. As long as the U is the only medical school in the state, it is up to the Office of Admissions to remediate this injustice. To borrow the words of Sheryl Sandberg once again, they must “start by actively seeking out qualified female candidates … And if qualified candidates cannot be found, then [they] need to invest in more recruiting, mentoring and sponsoring so women can get the necessary experience.”

Unfortunately, Utah’s challenges with gender equality are deep rooted. In April of 2015, The Economist reported that “just eight percent of Utahn women between the ages of 25 to 64 have a master’s, doctoral or professional degree, a third less than the national figure.” The wage gap is also higher. “The average woman in Utah earns 70 percent as much as the average man; across America, the figure is 78 percent.”

Even these numbers do not adequately reflect the sexist environment that often confronts female graduate students in Utah. In my first year, I have already witnessed a male student raise his hand and announce, in front of our entire class, that we should handle conflicts differently and less aggressively with women as they have a tendency to get emotional and might even cry. A female student confided that someone told her that women without children can attend medical school, but after having kids they should really consider going to nursing school instead. These types of comments are offensive and unacceptable. I am embarrassed that despite decades of advancements in women’s rights, such a hurtful culture is allowed to exist today at the U.

It is up to each of us to eradicate sexism in all of its forms. I plead with the U of Medicine Office of Admissions to make the necessary efforts starting today to ensure that next year’s incoming class has equal representation from both sexes. I invite all of my classmates, and students across all programs at the U, to treat women with the respect they deserve and to raise their voices when mistreatment occurs. Together we can continue to build on the triumphs of the generations of women’s rights advocates who have come before us. Together we can continue to march toward true equality.

letters@chronicle.utah.edu

 

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