How Many Lives Has Sexism in Medicine Cost?

In the past few days, I have been in various medical-scientific meetings focused on how to tackle serious health problems. In all of these meetings were brilliant, powerhouse women scientists and clinicians.

50 years ago, almost none of these women would have been physicians, public health professionals or professors. The jobs for which many women were qualified went to less talented men. When I see how many lives these women are saving now, I wonder how many patients (including of course many men) have died over the years due to the long term exclusion of women from the healing arts and their associated sciences. We focus appropriately on how great it is for women that so many doors have opened to them, but the benefit extends to anyone who has or will one day develop a serious illness. We have doubled the size of the talent pool from which we draw our medical professionals, with incalculable benefits to public health.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

12 thoughts on “How Many Lives Has Sexism in Medicine Cost?”

  1. It's not, of course, just a doubling of the talent pool's size but also a widening of its scope. As long as men and women are treated significantly differently, their formative experiences and thus the ways they see things will be different. So you increase the chances for not just doing more of the same set of things.

  2. The same can, of course, be said about sexism in any field (especially the sciences) whose results are useful and/or beneficial to humans as a whole. And about racism in all those fields, as well. Placing limits on the talent available to solve problems hurts everyone. It seems so obvious that ensuring better education for all, from early childhood on, regardless of income, race, or gender, would cause improvements that would "slop over" into all sorts of improvements in society. Well educated people with challenging jobs who contribute to society are less likely to be street thugs, for one, but how many kids never have a clue about the exciting worlds available to them, because their education was so poor they were never exposed to them?

    And of course, if you get into providing "good" educations, you have to talk about providing at least a minimum level of "good" nutrition for growing minds and bodies, it seems the two are inextricably linked. And "good" health care, as well. But we Americans prefer not to pay the taxes necessary to provide that education, nutrition, and health care at all levels of society. And we suffer societal ills for our choices, not the least of which is fewer good minds with good educations bending their considerable talents to solving problems and improving everyone's quality of life.

  3. ¨…..the long term exclusion of women from the healing arts and their associated sciences.¨ Women have never been excluded from these in general, just from medicine, which is surely less important for overall welfare than nursing, midwifery, health visiting and domestic caring. Michael O´Hare is right that plumbers and sanitary engineers come first.

  4. James

    You left out "their associated sciences", i.e., developing vaccines, cracking the structure of the genome, isolating bacteria and viruses among a million other breakthroughs that have saved millions of lives.

  5. > 50 years ago, almost none of these women would have been physicians,

    > public health professionals or professors. The jobs for which many

    > women were qualified went to less talented men. When I see how many

    > lives these women are saving now, I wonder how many patients (including

    > of course many men) have died over the years due to the long term exclusion

    > of women from the healing arts and their associated sciences.

    I'm not sure the alternate history ties up so neatly there. Many of those talented women who wanted to work outside the home ended up in primary and secondary schools, where they provided excellent educations to the boys (and finally in the 1960s and 70s, to the girls) who would become the doctors and researchers. One of the reasons (although certainly not the only one) is the loss of this capable, overqualified, and underpaid teaching workforce and the impossibility of replacing it.

    Cranky

  6. Keith: medical science didn´t get going till around 1850, and had little to show for itself until the 1930s (according to Lewis Thomas). I´m not a medical historian, but there were surely many women doctors and researchers by then. (Some of the researchers were no doubt downgraded into anonymous assistants.) On the cracking of the genetic code, Rosalind Franklin´s contribution was crucial, and it´s a sexist shame she didn´t get the Nobel with Crick and Watson.

    I think you owe the nurses a correction.

  7. Your analysis would suggest that I should have restricted my claim to recent decades, say the last 50 years. So I am glad I did that : )

  8. "One of the reasons (although certainly not the only one) [for the decline of the large urban school districts since 1970] is the loss of this capable, overqualified, and underpaid teaching workforce and the impossibility of replacing it."

    Sorry; key phrase missing in the first version.

    Cranky

  9. Among early women medical scientists, check out the talented mediaeval anatomist Alessandra_Giliani. She had severalsuccessors in the 18th century, including Laura Bassi, who was made a full professor. Bologna has always been an ornery, leftish town.

  10. Marie Curie too of course. We notice them because they were exceptions. Today, my medical school has top women scientists in every department.

  11. I'll associate myself with Cranky, and tell a story. There were losses in the opening of the top professions to women. When I worked for Mike O'Hare in the Mass. Office of Environmental Affairs, we were having a dreadful time getting volunteer members of oversight committees. Mass. had been, for years, putting oversight committees into legislation, and getting many talented Wellesley/Radcliffe graduates to take on the good government work of assessing program needs, as volunteers. Committees! Glory! Not enough, in the 80s, when women could actually go to professional school and get Money! And that was the end of that.

  12. There's another hole in James Wimberley's initial comment: even as women have worked as nurses, midwives and so forth, there's been a long battle (mostly winding down, thank goodness) on the part of (mostly male and male-identified) doctors to stamp out their expertise and autonomy. Only during the past couple of decades, for example, has the notion of nursing as a complementary rather than entirely subordinate profession taken serious hold.

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