Do Gender Stereotypes Persist for Physicians?

Jun 21, 2012, 7:10 PM

Last week, on the New York Times Well Blog, New York University School of Medicine professor Danielle Ofri, MD, wrote about the "perception bias" that doctors are male. These presumptions persist, she writes, even though they lag far behind reality at this time when about half of students in medical schools are female.

Ofri recounts a letter she received from a college professor explaining that after reading one of her essays, more than half of his students assumed she was a man, despite her name. She writes:

Part of me finds this entirely ridiculous and impossible to believe in this day and age — except that I’ve fallen into the same trap. One of my patients recently saw a pulmonologist at another hospital. “Would you call Dr. Marcus about my X-ray results?” the patient asked.

“Sure,” I replied. “I’ll give him a call this afternoon.”

“She,” my patient gently chided.

Perhaps change simply takes longer than we expect. My own children were born almost two decades after those college freshmen were born. We’ve had three pediatricians over the years, and all were women. In their day care center — associated with the hospital — almost every child’s mother was a doctor.

One day, my daughter came home reporting an amazing discovery. “Jacob’s father is a doctor too,” she exclaimed. “Just like Jacob’s mother!” In her world, it simply had never dawned on her that “doctor” could equal “man.” If that 1979 preschooler study [where young children “knew” that doctors were men and nurses were female] were repeated on her generation, I suspect the results would be different.

In the end, though, I wonder how important it really is. After all, we have multitudes of preconceptions about doctors, writers — all people, in fact — and sex is only one of them.

What do you think? Is there still an assumption that physicians are men, or is it changing? Does it matter? What, if anything, should we be doing to change gender stereotypes in medicine? Register below to leave a comment.

Read the New York Times blog post.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.