96 Female Doctors Tell Us How Being A Woman Impacted Their Medical Career

Female doctors are no rarity in urban India. Yet, even today, what does it mean to be a woman and a doctor - how does gender impact women in Medicine?

Female doctors are no rarity in urban India. Yet, even today, what does it mean to be a woman and a doctor – how does gender impact the prospects of women who slog it out in Medicine?

One of the top priorities for female science students in India even today is a career in medicine. Despite the arduous road involved in getting into a prestigious institution, there are many takers for the course and it remains a stiffly competitive field, given the number of students that apply for a seat and the small percentage that actually gets in. Yet on an average, women students constitute about 49- 51% of new entrants into a graduation class.

The question before us today is, how many of these female students follow through with a fulfilling and satisfying career after graduation? Do they face a glass ceiling as far as career progression is concerned? If so, what are the reasons behind this?

How much does the constant juggling of work and personal life demand from these female medical graduates? How do they see themselves as far as the career graph was concerned, say 25-30 years after graduation by which time they should be at the peak of their careers?

Asking a 100 female doctors…

I reached out to around 100 female doctors across specialities, of which 60% were my own batch mates, having graduated exactly 30 years ago. The rest were younger colleagues, students and acquaintances within my work sphere, namely the Armed Forces.

I developed a simple questionnaire, aimed at understanding whether they felt their gender had placed a glass ceiling on their ambitions and achievements, as doctors. I also aimed at understanding how family commitments had impacted their post-graduate careers, and to what extent they felt in control of the choices they had made.

The actual questions I asked were:

  1. Did being a woman put a ceiling on what you wanted to achieve  in your career?
  2.  Did pursuing academics … specialisation/super specialisation suffer?
  3. Was it your own choice or were you forced to make this choice?

I also left it open to them to share with me any other inputs on the subject that they felt were relevant. It was therefore meant to explore the subject meaningfully, and not just collect a few numbers.

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Taking our class of ‘88 (we joined Calicut – now Kozhikode – Govt  Medical College in April 1983), we were 75 ‘girls’ as opposed to the 125 ‘boys’ in a class of 200. It would be pertinent to note here that two of the girls were already married and one had a child! Which only goes to show that they had started out with determination. Kerala has always been more gender equal than most places in the country.

In all, I received responses from 96 female medical graduates. Broadly speaking, the replies to the first question were split down the middle. Around 51% of the respondents felt that their career choice or progression had not been limited by their gender. Many of them ascribed parental support as the main factor in their choosing a career in medicine in the first place. A few admitted to being ‘gently guided’ in that direction by their parents, which is a well-known phenomenon in Indian homes.

However, when it came to post-graduation and further training, close to 60% felt that their choice of specialisation and sub-specialisation had definitely come under a cloud because of the choices they had to make between their career and family commitments.

An overwhelming 90% of the women I contacted however attributed this choice to their own decision-making process, when they chose either specialisation, further academics, career progression or their family commitments.

How big a deal was Marriage?

Surprisingly, many women felt that marriage had not adversely affected their career progression. A few of them, including yours truly, had their choices of specialisations influenced to varying degrees by the fact that they now had another person’s life and career closely intertwined with their own.

In a happy state of affairs, almost everyone acknowledged considerable support from their spouse. A few had problems and faced opposition from the in-laws rather than the husband. At least four of them were steered towards giving up choosing a speciality like Obstetrics and Gynaecology because of its demanding nature.

Not marriage, but Children…were the issue!

It was the arrival of a child or children that drastically influenced and changed their career paths. Almost all who felt that their gender had limited or restricted their career choices felt that it was because it was a given fact that the lady would be the one who would balance the two with less or even no contribution from their spouses as far as career adjustments went.

As one of my friends put it, “I never saw myself in the role of the primary breadwinner of the house. I felt it was my responsibility to hold the ladder as the actual breadwinner climbed.”  A telling insight into the mind of an otherwise highly intelligent and independent lady.

But then, is a career just a means of earning money? What about your own self-worth? What about the hundreds of hours of effort spent in obtaining these degrees and qualifications? What about professional satisfaction? Isn’t that the reason why one chooses medicine as a career in the first place? So that one can make a difference?

About making the decision of taking a backseat as far as ambition was concerned once the children came, there are varying expressions and reasons from “Yes, I put the brakes myself!” to “ I had several roles to play – all equally important to me.” Another said that she was “made to feel that her goal was being a good wife and mother” and she just went along with it, as was expected.

Career on hold…and restarting

Several women, especially the ones who had settled abroad, put their career ‘on hold’ for periods varying from 5 to 10 years till they felt that their children were capable of being left on their own on in someone else’s care. However, these medical professionals did very well once they resumed the dormant career.

A case in point being a medico in India, already on the wrong side of 50, who has just put in her thesis for a PhD despite having two diplomas to her credit. Another gave up a PG seat 5 to 6 times before finally choosing to continue with studies. Not everyone is that lucky – for every one such person, there are three who never went back to academics once they gave up the seat.

Wanting to be there for the kids, wanting to stay together as a family, giving up opportunities as they entailed being away from home or the place they lived in for long periods of time were the other reasons commonly cited for putting on brakes on a promising career.

Most felt that it was “expected” that the woman had to share a larger portion of the responsibilities of being present for the children, whether at school or at home or at their crucial ages of choosing their own careers.

Interestingly the biological clock is also a great contributor to choices and lost opportunities. For very many women, the arrival of children usually coincides with the time one must make a choice of specialisation. And therefore, more demanding surgical specialities are given a miss – one of the respondents recalled that she had wanted to become a cardiothoracic surgeon but had to give up the dream, given the taxing hours. Fields such as Pathology are considered an easier one to balance as the hours are more flexible or at least more regular.

As a female doctor, how high can one fly?

Now we come to the question of how distant was the top of the rung for women in their chosen field. There were a few highly successful women at the top of the game ranging from renowned neonatologists to international faculty in their fields but on a score of 1 to 10, I would place a majority of the ladies I contacted at a more modest 6 or 7, where they do have a successful career but not a spectacular one.

There are various reasons –  as one senior lady in the forces put it, the aggression and initiative that is so admired in men, is feared and even ridiculed in a woman. The networking and informal chatting is also frowned upon and so the Big Boys Club stays just that – a boy’s club.

A certain amount of resentment is also seen against women who make it big.  Another medical professional, who has been perseverant to do her super specialisation said she would not be working in the city she was in if it was not her spouse’s preferred place. In the process she felt she had suppressed her professional ambitions to follow a set norm.

The flip side of lowering your ambitions

There is a flip side to this as well. A few ladies felt that being a woman gave them more freedom in that they were not pressured to have a permanent paying job. The men, they feel are forced to get a job and support their family whereas a woman’s contribution could be taken as a secondary or supplementary income and hence gave them more lateral shifts and choices.

One for example developed a late life passion for biking and gave up a secure job (where she was doing well professionally) to follow her dream, which she says would not have been easy to do, if she was the ‘man of the house’. Being a woman gave her the freedom to choose her dream over her role as a breadwinner of the family. Such interpretations would also allow women to forgo their role as breadwinners or at least get temporarily benched as far as that role was concerned. The same yardstick could have applied to women who decide to take a break or take long leave till the children are old enough to be left on their own.

What about me?

From a personal perspective, I have managed to make a career in the Armed forces as a Gynaecologist which has been professionally satisfying and modestly successful. However, after doing my MD, I chose not to pursue further study and super-specialisation as I felt my children needed me at that point in time; this, despite having obtained an University 1st rank at my MD exam.

Moreover, I was married to an Army officer who would be away from home for really long periods of time. One would not be human if one did not regret these decisions at some point in time, however briefly.

So that brings us to the last question. What makes us take these choices when faced with options? Is it the natural maternal instinct which makes us want to nurture? Or is it the load of expectations that we carry of being the primary home maker, no matter what, as well as the primary caregiver to children?

As one of my respondents so succinctly put it, it is the expected choice couched in the euphemistic “my own choice” – a choice brought on by the heavy baggage of guilt, responsibility and expectations. As mentioned earlier, a staggering 90% of the women I interviewed felt that their decisions related to their career had been made of their own choice.

Is this choice an option or an ultimatum? Is it taken in total freedom or under the weight of the right thing to do, the former a liberating choice and the latter at best, a compromise of one’s potential and dreams? Is it wrong to be ambitious? Is it less feminine to be aggressive and assertive?

A woman is expected to juggle a multitude of apples – education, the nitty gritty of everyday housekeeping, the bearing and rearing of children. In this energy sapping process, is she to blame if one slips away? Is it this that limits her potential to fly higher?

In my survey, I would say that only around 10% of the female medicos had reached the potential seen in the beginning of their careers. However, around 70 to 75% do have a reasonably satisfying career possibly restricted by various factors. Approximately 15 to 20% of the women give up or are forced to make major compromises on their career.

Questions remain which will probably take another generation to answer and a lifetime to abide by honest answers. Till that happens, female doctors are unlikely to ‘Have It All’ and will make difficult choices.

I hope the next generation will not have to choose between career and home.

Into that freedom, let the next generation of female doctors awake!

Image via Canva

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About the Author

Aruna Menon

A Gynecologist by profession n blogger by passion, I love words! I love weaving life experiences into verse and prose. I'm particularly interested in relationships and how they work. A strong supporter of woman read more...

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