The Past, Present, and Bright Future of Women in Healthcare
Published on Sep 1, 2022. Updated on Feb 16, 2023.
Women now comprise nearly 70% of all healthcare professionals globally, 88% of all nurses, and just over 50% of medical students in the United States, but there are still a number of challenges to overcome. Join us for Women in Medicine Month this September to celebrate the determined women who have paved the way in medicine, along with the groundbreaking providers who offer a variety of healthcare services around the globe.
The earliest days of history offer multiple examples of women shifting from familial caregivers to acknowledged physicians. In ancient times, the Western world worshiped goddesses such as Hygeia and Sekhmet, who were both dedicated to the healing arts. In ancient Greece and Egypt, female adherents to these deities treated patients and studied the effectiveness of their methods and tools. Women physicians were common, regularly teaching their craft and performing operations.
As the power of Rome began to fade and history moved on to the Middle Ages, people started to look at women who practiced nursing and medicine with suspicion and malice. They were actively marginalized by the medical community and were regularly portrayed as witches rather than healers for the next five centuries. Yet a handful of brave women persevered to pave the way for their peers.
Nursing being treated as a profession goes back to Rome in 300 AD. Over the centuries, nursing became a relatively common occupation in Europe in the Middle Ages, due to the influence and support of the Catholic church. This practice continued throughout the 16th century but began to fade as monasteries were shut down. In 1860, the first nursing school was opened in London, England, and the foundation of modern nursing practices was established by women such as the famed Florence Nightingale and her peers.
Determining exactly which woman was the first to earn a medical degree from a modern medical institution is more challenging. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to earn her medical degree in the United States in 1849, is often attributed with this honor. However, almost a century earlier in 1754, Germany’s Dorothea Erxleben earned her medical license from the University of Halle and spent much of her life encouraging other women to continue to challenge the status quo and improve the social conditions for women.
The Law that Changed the Land
Despite the many courageous, determined pioneers paving the way, the number of women studying medicine continued to lag far behind their male counterparts well into the 20th century. As of 1949, only 5.5% of medical students were women. Overt discrimination was a huge factor and social conventions discouraged many would-be female doctors and nurses from working outside the home.
Then came Title IX, a groundbreaking U.S. civil rights law that went into effect on June 23, 1972, outlawing any discrimination based on sex in educational programs that receive federal funding. And while Title IX was transformative for all women and girls living in the U.S., it was a revelation for women working in healthcare. By 1974 the number of women applying to medical school grew to more than 22%. And as of 2022, women represent the majority of students going into medicine and even dominate select healthcare specialties. And as of 2022, women represent the majority of students going into medicine and even dominate select healthcare specialties.
The State of Women in Health
Thanks to those trailblazers, women are now a respected, needed, and (nearly) equal part of the healthcare workforce around the world. And while women still face greater barriers than men when entering STEM fields in general, and medical fields in particular, there is some reason for optimism.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women currently hold over 77% of healthcare jobs. Since this field is growing quickly each year, that is great news for women’s employment overall. However, these jobs do not include higher-paying leadership roles in healthcare organizations, but the number of women in executive roles and leadership is starting to grow.
Disparities and Challenges
Unfortunately, gender bias still dictates a lot of activity in health professions. Though this is changing, healthcare leadership is still male-dominated. Approximately 13% of healthcare CEOs are women. Though that number has risen steadily in recent years, it is still notably low and should be addressed in the short term.
Another big issue for women in healthcare is that sponsorship and mentorship are still hard to find. Gender bias skews heavily male-focused when senior medical professionals choose who they’ll take under their wing. Some organizations are addressing this, such as U.S. healthcare corporation, Kaiser Permanente, by prioritizing the sponsorship of women in the organization. They have seen great results, with women in nearly half of their current executive roles.
Another gender disparity to tackle is the focus mainly on male health issues with regard to medical research funding, with only 4% of funding focusing on women’s health issues. The National Institute of Health reports funding upwards of $40M on health research, only $5M of which goes to studying women’s health. Research labs headed by women are far fewer than those run by men, and it is much more difficult for women to find funding for their projects.
Finally, the wage gap between men and women in healthcare professions persists. Currently, women earn 24% less than men in the same positions, in spite of being such a large portion of the workforce. However, a recent government survey found that women working in healthcare have gained higher salaries at a faster rate than their male counterparts in recent years.
Looking Toward the Future
While some of these statistics may be disheartening, there are a lot of organizations that have begun prioritizing gender equity in terms of employment, employee development, and promotion, as well as funding research for women’s health issues.
The healthcare workforce continues to grow, especially in the women-dominated field of nursing. And the healthcare industry has begun offering more mentorship opportunities and is becoming more intentional about mentoring and promoting women into leadership positions.
Additionally, after seeing a lot of mental health challenges and burnout among their employees leading to high turnover rates, many organizations–from hospitals to doctor's offices, to government agencies–have started prioritizing the mental and physical wellness of staff.
And while industry leaders are predicting shortages of nurses and doctors in the coming years, the need to hire and retain staff could help pave the way for women in healthcare to expand into historically male-dominated specialties as well as lower or even eliminate the industry wage gap due to demand.
By supporting the current workforce and acknowledging the experience and knowledge of women in healthcare–from nurses to doctors, researchers, and teachers–we can bring constructive change to both healthcare and society.
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