Are more female physicians leaving medicine as pandemic surges?


Writing recently in a blog post for the BMJ, Dr. Silver and colleagues predict that as a result of the pandemic, female physicians will “face disadvantages from unconscious bias in decisions about whose pay should be cut, whose operating schedules should take priority when resources are limited, and whose contributions merit retention ... The ground that women lose now will likely have a profound effect for many years to come, perhaps putting them at a disadvantage for the rest of their careers.”

There is already evidence of reduced publishing by female scientists during the pandemic, something that “could undermine the careers of an entire generation of women scholars,” noted Caitlyn Collins, PhD , assistant professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis.

“Science needs to address the culture of overwork,” Dr. Collins said in an interview. “Parents and other caregivers deserve support. The stress and ‘overwhelm’ they feel is not inevitable. A more fair, just, and humane approach to combining work and family is possible – what we need is the political will to pass better policies and a massive shift in our cultural understandings about how work should fit into family life, not the other way around.”

Lack of support for “vulnerable scientists,” particularly “junior scientists who are parents, women, or minorities” could lead to “severe attrition in cancer research in the coming years,” Cullen Taniguchi, MD, PhD , a radiation oncologist and associate professor at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, and colleagues, warned in a recent letter to the journal Cancer Cell.

“The biggest worries of attrition will come from young faculty who started just before or after the pandemic,” Dr. Taniguchi said in an interview. “The first year in an academic setting is incredibly challenging but also important for establishing research efforts and building networks of colleagues to collaborate with. While completely necessary, the restrictions put in place during the pandemic made doing these things even more difficult.”

Another stressor: Caregiving at home

Another reason female physicians may be marginalized during the pandemic is that they are more often the primary caregivers at home.

“Anyone who is a caregiver, be it to kids, parents, or spouses, can relate to the challenges brought [on] by the pandemic,” said Ishwaria Subbiah, MD, a palliative care physician and medical oncologist at MD Anderson.

“Most of us work toward meeting our responsibilities by engaging a network of support, whether it’s home care workers, center-based or at-home child care, schools, or activities outside of school. The pandemic led to a level of disruption that brought most (if not all) of those responsibilities onto the caregivers themselves,” she said in an interview.

As the mother of an adult son with severe epilepsy, Dr. Bertagnolli has certainly experienced the challenges of parenting during the pandemic. “Our son is now 24 but he is handicapped, and lives with us. The care issues we have to deal with as professionals have been enormously magnified by COVID,” she said.

But she cautions against making gender distinctions when it comes to caregiving. “Has it fallen on the women? Well, this kind of stuff generally falls on the women, but I am certain it has fallen on an awful lot of men as well, because I think the world is changing that way, so it’s fallen on all of us.”


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