Medical school enrollment has traditionally been dominated by men-until now.
Medical school enrollment has traditionally been dominated by men-until now. The number of women enrolling in med school surpassed men for the first time last year, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC).
Women represented 50.7 percent of the 21,338 med school enrollees in 2017. Female matriculants increased by 3.2 percent, while male matriculants declined by 0.3 percent. The overall number of U.S. med school matriculants rose 1.5 percent with total enrollment at 89,904 students.
What does this mean for women in medicine?
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“It’s important because women have been underrepresented in medicine for a long time, and we really strive to have a workforce that reflects the general working population,” says Alison Whelan, MD, chief medical education officer at the Association of American Medical Colleges.
“Overall, a workplace that reflects a 50-50 balance is reasonable, so we should continue the effort to maintain this balance, and make sure it’s not just a onetime blip and then goes back down again,” says Whelan.
Entering classes at the nation’s medical schools continue to diversify. From 2015 to 2017, African American matriculants increased by 12.6 percent, and Hispanic, Latino and matriculants of Spanish origin rose by 15.4 percent. It’s no surprise women followed suit.
Whelan says increasing diversity has been a long-time goal. Pipeline programs that encourage young women and girls to enroll in medicine as well as other sciences, where they’ve been traditionally underrepresented, are paying off. These K-12 STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) programs encourage gender equality.
“Oftentimes, showcasing role models and mentors for women, these programs and others encourage minority populations to apply,” says Whelan.
Next: What women think
The numbers signify that practicing medicine is an equally attractive career for women and that the med school environment may be more inclusive than ever before. Whelan says medical schools are making significant strides in fostering more diversity as well. While there’s always more work to do in attracting minority students, for the first time, this is a positive milestone when it comes to the balance of men and women matriculants.
One reason women are welcoming the narrowing of the gender divide in medical school is because the more women who participate in educational and training programs, the more attentive they become to the wellness of trainees. Things like acceptance of alternate career paths in medicine, time out for family care, structured mentoring, and addressing the gender differences that impact the daily work experiences of women in medicine are just some of the ways more women in the field are improving it.
“This is important because women in medicine have long played a major part in innovation, clinical care, and the education of trainees and students in the health sciences,” says Pamela B. Davis, MD, Ph.D., dean of the school of medicine and senior vice president for medical affairs at Case Western Reserve University.
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Additionally, the annual survey by the AAMC also uncovered that more students indicate having a work-life balance was essential to their paths after medical school. And nearly 30 percent said they plan to work in underserved areas.
The AAMC is encouraged by the report, and the fact that women and minorities are joining the ranks of physicians, which will have a projected shortage as the population ages and the need for physicians increase. As a culture, society has embraced both working women and working mothers over the past several decades, which may have given rise to these promising numbers. A few short decades back, women may have been more reticent to enter the medical field because of its arduous nature, long hours and male-centric focus.
Experts think as more women populate medical specialties and higher rungs on the medical academia ladder, women physicians will continue to bring new perspective and address issues like balancing work and family life, paving the way for more women doctors.
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"Women have historically been an underrepresented part of medicine,” says Linda Mehta, MD, associate dean for admissions at Case Western University. “While our numbers are increasing, our voices and recognition of our contributions have yet to be fully recognized. We have so much talent and perspective to add to the medical landscape, and this must be recognized, celebrated and encouraged.”