The numbers are increasing at an excruciatingly slow pace, but there are currently twice as many male doctors as female doctors in the United States. (So, needless to say, there's a whole lot of room for improvement.) Suzanne Koven, a physician and writer in residence at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, recently helped a group of medical interns write letters to their future selves. Koven joined in the letter-writing — but she addressed her own missive to her younger self.
"When I started my internship 30 years ago, I wasn’t invited to share my hopes and anxieties in a letter — or anywhere else, for that matter," Koven wrote in the letter, which was published in The New England Journal of Medicine.
She recalled the countless instances of subtle and overt sexism that she encountered on a daily basis — and emphasizes that, even 30 years into her career, sexist comments remain par for the course.
"There will be more sexism, some infuriating, some merely annoying. As a pregnant resident, I inquired about my hospital’s maternity-leave policy for house officers and was told that it was a great idea and I should draft one," Koven wrote. "Decades into practice, when I call in a prescription, some pharmacists still ask for the name of the doctor I’m calling for."
Perhaps most depressingly of all, she addressed the issue of the wage gap: On average, female physicians earn about $20,000 less than their male counterparts.
Koven also wrote about feeling like "a fraud" — and her words will undoubtedly strike a chord with women who occupy a wide variety of professions.
"I believe that women’s fear of fraudulence is similar to men’s, but with an added feature: not only do we tend to perseverate over our inadequacies, we also often denigrate our strengths," she observed.
Looking back, Koven wishes that she'd spent less time worrying about being a "fraud" and more time focusing on the things her patients appreciated about her, such as her jokes, hugs, and innate ability to know when it was appropriate to butt in or butt out.
"My dear young colleague, you are not a fraud. You are a flawed and unique human being, with excellent training and an admirable sense of purpose," Koven concluded. "Your training and sense of purpose will serve you well. Your humanity will serve your patients even better."
Although the piece is titled "Letter To A Young Female Physician," Koven has been overwhelmed by the responses she's received from older physicians, male physicians, and non-physicians.
"This particular vulnerability, this fear of being a fraud is widespread apparently," Koven says.