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Women doctors have made amazing strides in the field, where only half a century earlier, it was almost exclusively dominated by men. Yet while the doors have opened to women doctors in most aspects, there is one notable exception: motherhood.
My favorite story of women breaking into this, male-dominated field is the one of Agnodice, who disguised herself as a man so that she could study medicine in ancient Greece. Many girls want to grow up to be both well-regarded doctors and wonderful mothers, but it seems that for the most part, they can’t have their cake and eat it too. Men can enter whatever field they want with little consequence, women must make sacrifices. I acknowledge that this seems to be changing, but the pace is still painfully slow.
To paraphrase a professor of mine, the world is still cruel to women. They are encouraged to pursue their career and focus on it with razor sharp focus, while their biological clocks tick away, independent of any aspirations they may develop down the road to start a family. Once the residency and fellowship parade is over (as the case were for aspiring doctors), and a woman is ready to start a family, it may already be too late. I’m all for women being driven and seizing life by the horns, but sometimes the cost is pretty great.
And then, there is me and those like me, who are from immigrant families who insist upon marriage and having at least the first child before age 30. If I am lucky, I will enter medical school at 24, take four years, and enter whatever specialty I can. Depending on what specialty that is, the years devoted to residencies and fellowships may be as low as 3 or as high as 6-7. People can say “Rebel! Blaze your own trail, do what you need to do to get what you want.” Yet in cultures where filial piety is prized and expected, it is far harder to go against the grain, even when your own wishes may be at stake. How does one reconcile cultural and societal obligations with the rigors of medical school/further training?
From what I can gather (and please correct me if I’m wrong) but several residencies tend to not look kindly on women who are pregnant or who have very young children. Each specialty requires a certain number of years of training. It makes sense, of course, that the more high-stakes residencies (for example neurosurgery) would probably require more time to train physicians in that field. Obviously I’d want my neurosurgeon (heaven forbid that I need one) to have had rigorous training. Yet there are 194 certified women neurosurgeons, out of something like 3000 neurosurgeons in total in the U.S. The difference between those numbers is alarming. It’s enough to discourage most women from even entertaining the idea of going down that road, but I’m not like most women. Many women seem to end up vying for the more “family-friendly” positions like family physician or pediatrician, or at least ones that finish up training quickly.
I am not one of those people, I’m aiming for one of the neuro residencies (neurosurgery if I can help it).* I love the complicated nature of the field, and yes, I love the potentially maddening level of stress that’s involved. It’s a field I greatly respect and I want to be a part of, but could potentially be turned away because I want to devote the same kind of attention to my family.
I went to a seminar being conducted at SUNY Downstate, giving advice for medical students as to when they should get married and start families. Literally, the window of opportunity was a few months at best for both, where the birth of a child could potentially set students back a year. Clearly under these restrictions, days-long, traditional Indian weddings are out the window. If I were to get pregnant year 3 or 4, that could be potentially problematic, whereas the first two years were a bit better (but by no means ideal). Heaven forbid you wanted to take care of your child until they were at least more communicative or mobile, and when their fear of strangers was under control (Piagetian child psychology sets this at around 2 years of age). Then perhaps the babysitter could be introduced, if you don’t mind having a babysitter or nanny (I do mind). Children are for many people, a vital part of their lives, and they have the right to get as much time early on with their parents as they can. Yet as far as I can tell, the policy seems to be to leave everything to after you start practicing. That’s great for some people, but others are (still) bound by age-old traditions and (sometimes antiquated though biologically sound) cultural expectations regarding marriage and childbirth.
Hopefully, the domination by men that still seems to be inherent will continue to be addressed, and will encourage more women to live their lives a bit more easily while pursuing their dreams. If any women doctors come across this, I’d love to hear your perspective, given that mine is pretty limited.
*This is all contingent on my getting into medical school. I’m not going to crow about medicine without putting in that little point in there, I’m not in medical school yet. Hopefully I will be soon, gotta take it one step at a time. Even contemplating residencies is a long way off, but it can’t hurt to start contemplating a little now!
So in the news today, Barack Obama has approached Sanjay Gupta–host of CNN’s “House Call” and noted neurosurgeon–to become the Surgeon General. For some reason this has pissed people off. Why? It’s viewed as a “celebrity” pick.
Here’s my argument.
This is not like Arnold Schwarzenegger, who swaggered into office with nothing more than being head of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports under his belt. This is not like Ronald Reagan, who was an actor by profession before he entered politics. To put Sanjay Gupta in the same category is ridiculous.
Sanjay Gupta’s training is in medicine, and he is a neurosurgeon–a field that is defined by its demand for perfection, since anything less than that could be fatal. The position he was tapped for was the position of Surgeon General. It’s not a terribly unusual situation.
Ok, so he is a CNN health correspondent. So? Chris Matthews is eyeing a run for Senator from Pennsylvania. He is a heavyweight in the world of political media, currently as the host of Hardball on MSNBC, and as a political writer and commentator in other media venues. He had a long political career that spanned several administrations before taking his place before a camera to comment on politics, rather than participate in it. Is Chris Matthews not worthy of a government position because of his celebrity status?
What are your thoughts?