Medicine and the meritocracy

Addressing systemic bias, gender inequity and discrimination


There are many challenges facing modern medicine today. Recent events have highlighted important issues affecting our society as a whole – systemic racism, sexism, and implicit bias. In medicine, we have seen a renewed focus on health equity, health disparities and the implicit systemic bias that affect those who work in the field. It is truly troubling that it has taken the continued loss of black lives to police brutality and a pandemic for this conversation to happen at every level in society.

Dr. Sowmya Kanikkannan

Systemic bias is present throughout corporate America, and it is no different within the physician workforce. Overall, there has been gradual interest in promoting and teaching diversity. Institutions have been slowly creating policies and administrative positions focused on inclusion and diversity over the last decade. So has diversity training objectively increased representation and advancement of women and minority groups? Do traditionally marginalized groups have better access to health? And are women and people of color (POC) represented equally in leadership positions in medicine?

Clearly, the answers are not straightforward.

Diving into the data

A guilty pleasure of mine is to assess how diverse and inclusive an institution is by looking at the wall of pictures recognizing top leadership in hospitals. Despite women accounting for 47.9% of graduates from medical school in 2018-2019, I still see very few women or POC elevated to this level. Of the total women graduates, 22.6% were Asian, 8% were Black and 5.4% were Hispanic.

Being of Indian descent, I am a woman of color (albeit one who may not be as profoundly affected by racism in medicine as my less represented colleagues). It is especially rare for me to see someone I can identify with in the ranks of top leadership. I find encouragement in seeing any woman on any leadership board because to me, it means that there is hope. The literature seems to support this degree of disparity as well. For example, a recent analysis shows that presidential leadership in medical societies are predominantly held by men (82.6% male vs. 17.4% female). Other datasets demonstrate that only 15% of deans and interim deans are women and AAMC’s report shows that women account for only 18% of all department chairs.

Growing up, my parents fueled my interest to pursue medicine. They described it as a noble profession that rewarded true merit and dedication to the cause. However, those that have been traditionally elevated in medicine are men. If merit knows no gender, why does a gender gap exist? If merit is blind to race, why are minorities so poorly represented in the workforce (much less in leadership)? My view of the wall leaves me wondering about the role of both sexism and racism in medicine.

These visual representations of the medical culture reinforce the acceptable norms and values – white and masculine – in medicine. The feminist movement over the last several decades has increased awareness about the need for equality of the sexes. However, it was not until the concept of intersectionality was introduced by Black feminist Professor Kimberle Crenshaw, that feminism become a more inclusive term. Professor Crenshaw’s paper details how every individual has intersecting factors – race, gender, sexual identity, socioeconomic status – that create the sum of their experience be it privilege, oppression, or discrimination.

For example, a White woman has privileges that a woman of color does not. Among non-white women, race and sexual identity are confounding factors – a Black woman, a Black LGBTQ woman, and an Asian woman, for example, will not experience discrimination in the same way. The farther you deviate from the accepted norms and values, the harder it is for you to obtain support and achieve recognition.


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