The underrepresentation of women in healthcare – what can we do?

January 17, 2017
Julia Zehel -

I have a rather mixed bag of thoughts when it comes to the topic of “women in healthcare”, mainly because my childhood experiences with healthcare are closely linked to women. While I grew up feeling like the two were one in the same, my adult-self has come to know that women are not particularly well-represented in the healthcare field.

Women’s lack of representation in healthcare isn’t an issue I’ve given much thought to until starting to work in health-tech. As I mentioned above, this is entirely because of my childhood exposure to healthcare and who it came from—growing up, the breadwinner in my family was not only a doctor, but my mother. When I was little, her stethoscope was an off-limits toy I was scolded for playing with; her pristine, white lab coat a cape that turned me into a superhero; the tongue depressors I could sometimes find in her work bag made for excellent little shovels. Beyond that, for every flu, headache, or broken bone anyone in my family experienced, my mother was the first on the scene, showing me by example her incredible breadth of medical knowledge and skill.

As I grew up, I often visited my mother at her clinic or was snuck into an examination room when I had an earache from spending too many summer days at the pool. The nursing staff (who were predominantly female) came to know me well, and I quickly became familiar with the hallways and rooms of the clinic, too, showing myself back to my mom’s office whenever I stopped in. With all it’s medical equipment, stark hallways, and figures in white labcoats, it became just another place to me, like a bookstore or school.

Playing with doctor gear and frequenting a clinic throughout my childhood may seem inconsequential, but it was somewhat of an uncommon experience given that the number of female physicians in the 1990s—while growing—was still quite small. Furthermore, the fact that my mother was a first generation Mexican immigrant added another layer of rarity to the situation, something that she made a point to highlight throughout the course of my childhood—that if she could be the first in her family to go to college (and med school), then anything was in reach for me.

This was the norm I grew up with, and from a very young age, the exposure to and familiarity I felt with the healthcare field via my mother (and the encouragement to seek out an equally challenging profession) solidified a positive connection between the most female figure in my life and an industry that I’ve only recently come to realize is largely dominated by the opposite gender.

Addressing Representation

Taking off the blinders you’ve had on since your childhood and realizing that your experience was not common was kind of disorienting. I remember when I first started at Redox, one of my female colleagues brought me along to a women’s networking event. I knew events like these were common within a variety of fields, but it was surprising to see that a place like Madison—which I always viewed as so progressive and open-minded and good—still harbored enough discrimination towards women that they held regular events like this. I didn’t realize women were so underrepresented in business (let alone healthcare), and I also didn’t realize how hard women were working to correct this issue.

Offering a game-changing solution to this problem is not something I am currently equipped to offer, but I still have a few thoughts as to how to change some aspects of how we think of women in health. This may seem too simplified, but I think part of solving the problem is reforming how women are both visually represented and thought about.

Let me explain.

So, women aren’t represented in healthcare. You could take this to mean they aren’t hired for an equal number of jobs in the field, but what I mean here is they aren’t even visually in the picture. If you do a quick Google image search for “doctor”, of the 32 doctors shown in the first five rows of pictures, only six of them are female… and three are of the same woman. If you Google “surgeon”, women fare only slightly better, with ten out of 35 shown as women. If you Google “nurse”, however, things change—of the 22 that appear, only one is a man (although, I accidentally googled “murse” and was momentarily quite shocked and proud of the strong male representation… until an odd abundance of fine leather craftsmanship tipped me off to my spelling mistake).

Taking this underrepresentation in a slightly different direction, 29 of the 32 doctors shown were white, but all three people of color were men. Of the 35 surgeons depicted (and take this with a grain of salt because they’re all wearing face masks), 32 were white and the people of color were all men. Again, when you get to nurse, things are different: twelve of the 22 were white, and only one person of color was a man.

This really hints that these professions are broadly segregated not only by gender, but even worse, by ethnicity. I think that’s a facet of discrimination that isn’t often focused on—that women of color have even less of a chance of being represented in fields they belong in. While this is just one channel’s depiction of the industry, if I had a live audience right now and asked them to draw the first thing that came to mind when they heard the term “surgeon”, I would bet good money that nearly everyone would draw something other than a woman of color in a white lab coat.

But I digress. Going back to the original point, I know the above Google experiment is rather rudimentary, but it shows that not only is healthcare more commonly portrayed as an industry comprised of men, it reinforces the notion that they are the gender suited for the complex, higher-up jobs while women are relegated to nursing. It also shows that men and women of color are simply not included in the picture in any meaningful way, which is incredibly detrimental.

Where do we go from here?

Medicine is one of the oldest professions, and the fact that it’s still struggling to be anything other than white and male is deeply unfortunate, as so many people have the talent, ambition, and creativity to improve the lives and health of millions of people. What’s more, people often look for doctors with whom they identify culturally, and not having enough of them can create real problems. With so much to gain, it’s sad to think about how many people will never seek out a healthcare career because they’ve been conditioned to believe it isn’t for them. 

When I tried to think of ways to remedy this problem, I moved away from solutions I couldn’t directly control (like actually hiring women at hospitals and health systems) and instead tried to focus on something that I could: envisioning women (and especially women of color) when I hear words like “doctor” or “engineer”. It’s a seemingly simple start, but cognitive patterns are extremely powerful and can directly influence how people treat, act, and feel towards a certain subject. Consciously working to change how we think about women in a variety of challenging fields—and more importantly, encouraging others to do the same—can lead to people viewing women as they truly are: incredibly capable, ambitious, and present in healthcare.

Representation = Normalization

Lastly (and quickly, I promise), another way to represent women in healthcare is by prominently placing them in brochures, posters, textbooks, and any other media that depicts a healthcare professional so that when kids Google “doctor”, they aren’t met with a wash of white men in lab coats. As it did for me while growing up, visual exposure to women in healthcare is a way to normalize it. Even if the majority of kids won’t grow up playing with their mother’s doctor toys, at least consistently seeing women as doctors could help children (and hell, even adults) actually see healthcare as an industry for both genders.

I’m positive my early exposure to healthcare shaped how I think about the gender divide within the industry. The way I grew up seeing my mother made me believe that women were every bit as deserving to be a doctor, and certainly, if I had grown up with my father as a physician instead, my perception of healthcare would likely be quite different. This is why I believe reforming the way we see women in healthcare can lead to normalizing our thoughts about the work they’re capable of doing.

The truth is that while women still have a ways to go, we’ve made steady progress in finding more equal footing in the healthcare field. It’s time our thinking caught up and did the same.

In the spirit of addressing this representation divide, we will be highlighting badass women in health tech over the coming weeks. Stay tuned for stories from some of the industry’s trailblazers who are showing the way to the next generation of women in health care. If you know someone we should highlight, please reach out to [email protected]

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