Viewpoint: Want to see a thick glass ceiling? Walk into a US medical school

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Hillary Clinton was lauded for cracking America's glass ceiling when she became the first woman to accept a presidential nomination from a major political party. This progress stands in stark contrast to the experience of women in medical schools, where glass ceilings remain thick, one physician states. 

Allyson Herbst, MD, a resident physician in internal medicine at Emory Healthcare in Atlanta, penned an op-ed for the Washington Post that details examples of sexism she's encountered during surgical procedures, lunch breaks, routine patient rounding and interviews with department chairs.

Her commentary arrives at a time when more women are working in medicine than ever before. But as long as women have to endure medical training "rife with sexism," the entire profession is in serious trouble, she contends.

Dr. Herbst highlights large and small reminders of sexism. Gaps in pay and disproportionate gender representation among leadership account for big reminders. Although women make up 46 percent of medical school applicants, students and residency trainees, they account for 38 percent of medical school faculty, 21 percent of full professors and 16 percent of deans. A recent JAMA study found female physicians earn 10 percent less per year at prominent public medical schools. 

While pay and leadership opportunities lag, women are near equal with men when it comes to rates of depression and ailing mental health. "Female physicians have a higher rate of major depression than women with doctorate degrees in other fields," writes Dr. Herbst. "Overall, men commit suicide four times more often than women; female physicians, though, kill themselves at a rate equal to male physicians."

Dr. Herbst also touches on smaller, conversational reminders of a profession in which men and women are not seen nor treated as equals. "My young female colleagues and I are constantly mistaken for nurses by patients and visitors, only because we're women. We are referred to as 'girls' by patients and medical colleagues alike, while our male counterparts are 'young men' or just 'men,'" she writes.

The op-ed closes with a probing question: "Just as we want our little girls to feel free to dream to be president, we should want our female physicians to aspire to be deans, chairs and leaders in their fields. How can we treat our patients fairly when we don't equally respect each other?"

Read Dr. Herbst's op-ed in full.

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