Women in Medicine Month: September 6, 2023

(SACRAMENTO) Originally written by Trisha Mulamreddy, M.D., UC Davis pediatrics resident and Elizabeth Moore, M.D., UC Davis pediatrics resident.

I was 5 years old the first time I met a doctor who was a woman. That day, while I played on the carpet, she read her X-rays with confidence and knew exactly which medicines her patients needed. I smiled while she listened to her patient’s heart with her stethoscope and tapped each knee with her reflex hammer. And she did it all while wearing hot pink heels. Playing with my Dr. Barbie that day, I knew exactly what I could achieve. I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up.

Doctor Barbie holding two babies in each arm and wearing pink high heels.

Like many others, this summer I gathered my closest girlfriends and went to see the Barbie movie. Sitting in the theater, I was reminded of my childhood dream of becoming Dr. Barbie. Today in my reality, I am surrounded by Dr. Barbies that I am proud to call my colleagues. There are more women entering the medical field than ever before.

In fact, this is one of the reasons I decided to become a pediatrician. About 75% of pediatricians are women. Studies show that female doctors have better communication styles, better patient outcomes, and better patient engagement than our male counterparts.

Despite immense progress, the institution of medicine still poses barriers for females in this profession. The “patriarchy,” as Ken highlights in the film, is still rampant in fields that were traditionally male dominated. When Stanford University posted its 2023 incoming surgery residents on social media, the Internet was aghast: There was only one male. The post drew misogynistic comments instead of celebrating these women and their accomplishments.

Once we’ve gotten the job, there are several more hurdles to overcome. A study published in 2021 showed that female physicians earn $2 million dollars less than men over the course of their careers. A 2022 study noted that female physicians delayed starting a family by five years compared to non-physicians. If they do choose to start a family, a lack of child care forces many to work part-time, shrinking an already impacted workforce.

As women, we are given the impossible task of being confident but humble, smart but not cocky, career-seeking while also full-time caretaking. We can all learn a lesson from Dr. Barbie: our children should have the support they need to pursue their dreams and imagine a life in any career.

In celebrating Women in Medicine month this September, we acknowledge that women have come a long way in the medical field – but there is so much more work to be done. We need to create a more hospitable and equitable work environment. Celebrating successes of female and male physicians alike. Creating training programs where women don’t feel they need to delay starting a family if that is something they desire, supporting paid family leave and increased lactation support, closing the gender wage gap, offering universal child care, as a start.

More than 20 years later, I still think about holding Dr. Barbie in my small hands and remember the days when I would play pretend that I could be a doctor one day, too. There’s a long road ahead, but we can be a bridge to our very own Barbie Land, where future generations can truly be whoever they choose to be.

I may have given up my Barbie playtime long ago, but now when I look in the mirror, I see the doctor I always pictured being, pink scrubs and all.