I finished medical school in 1999. My class was about 54% female. Currently the field of physicians is close to 50/50 men and women. However, fewer than 20% of cardiologists are women. And, just under 6% of interventional cardiologists, my subspecialty, are women.
When sitting at a meeting of cardiologists, I'm more taken aback when I look across the table to see another woman cardiologist, than I am to walk into a room of all male cardiologists.
I can't say that there is often overt discrimination. I can say, however, that the female physician experience within my field, and likely others in medicine as well, is different from what a man would experience.
Recently, I attended a session on a new piece of technology for coronary intervention. As usual, I sat in an audience of all male cardiologists. I listened intently, and asked a question of the presenter about the availability of the product at other local hospitals that I cover. On my way out the door, a company representative approached me and asked, "Are you a hospital marketing professional?", not thinking that I just might be, like everyone else in the room, another interventional cardiologist.
A couple years ago, I was in the cardiac catheterization laboratory preparing to scrub a case. There were two operating suites. One of my male colleagues was working in the other suite. A representative for a device company, interestingly a woman, was in the lab that morning to promote her company's stent. As I was preparing for the procedure, she walked past me, not saying a word, into the lab next door where the male cardiologist was scrubbed.
Did she blow past me not knowing I was the physician? Did she assume that since I am a woman that I must be a nurse or a tech? I'll never know. But, most representatives promoting products will go to the small effort to find out which doctors will be scrubbed in each lab, and then introduce herself to the doctors.
The differences in how male and female physicians are treated tend to be more subtle. The patient who, just meeting me, feels comfortable addressing me by my first name, who likely would refer to a male physician using the title "doctor". The patient who refers to me as "hon" or "sweetie", who I promptly, but politely, will correct. Or, the patient, who upon me walking into the room, in my white coat, heels, and a dress, remarks, "You don't look like a doctor," or "I was expecting someone different", perhaps from the patient who didn't notice my first name on his or her appointment card and expected a more grey-haired man to be their cardiologist.
Or, a typical hospital scene: A female physician, a male nurse, a male physical therapist, and a male nursing aide are all working at a nursing station. A patient family member walks up to the nursing station to request a glass of water, another pillow, or something else for the patient. Who does the family member walk up to? The female physician.
There are other subtle differences. I've observed that bad behavior from men is tolerated often when it should not be. I watched one male cardiologist walk into a cath lab and scream (yes scream) at the staff because a patient was not ready. After he walked out, I turned to one of the techs and asked, "You put up with that behavior?" "That's just how he is," she said. I've seen male physicians chastise medical assistants for the smallest of details being missed and get away with it. And yet, I've found that I've had to adjust my own fairly direct manner of communication so as not to make others around me feel intimidated.
That said, there are benefits to being a woman physician. Women tend to be better listeners, and patients tend to be more comfortable opening up to women about their problems. The more comfortable a patient is to share what is going on in his life, the better I can be as a doctor to help him.
Even as women are more prevalent among physicians, old stereotypes, whether conscious or subconscious, still persist.