Female physicians discuss life in historically male-dominated profession

Wednesday, October 28, 2009 | 5:00 p.m. CDT; updated 1:44 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 28, 2010
From left, Nicole Fearing, Jen Doty and Dena Higbee gather at the Russell D. and Mary B. Shelden Clinical Simulation at University Hospital.

COLUMBIA — A few years ago, Nicole Fearing was about to begin a colonoscopy on a patient at Truman Veterans Hospital in Columbia when the patient wondered aloud whether the hospital couldn't afford to hire a male physician.

Fearing responded with an offer to replace herself with a male physician. As the patient declined the offer but continued complaining, Fearing couldn't resist a quip.

Changing the face of medicine

Gloria Wilder, who has appeared on Oprah and is the founder of Core Health, will speak at 1 p.m. Nov. 5 in Monsanto Auditorium at the Bond Life Sciences Center and at 7 p.m. in Neff Hall Auditorium at MU. Wilder has spent her career as a physician working with people who lack access to medical care. Her talk is in conjunction with the exhibit "Changing the Face of Medicine: Celebrating America's Women Physicians," on display at the Health Sciences Library. For more information, go to

"I told him my hands are smaller than most male surgeons," she said.

Fearing said she has to cope with occasional snide remarks and "guy talk" as a female physician, especially as surgery is still a boy's club.

"I grew up with three older brothers and a father who was in the Army, so I have heard a lot worse," she said. "I can give it back, but if it crosses the line, I feel comfortable asking for it to stop."

Fearing talked about her experiences during a recent panel discussion as part of a National Library of Medicine traveling exhibition, "Changing the Face of Medicine: Celebrating America's Women Physicians." The exhibition will be at J. Otto Lottes Health Sciences Library at MU through Nov. 14.

The changing face of physicians

Medicine is an increasingly attractive profession for women. The number of female students in medicine has risen, and according to information from the panel discussion, there is also an increase in the number of women in academic positions and leadership.

But MU has been a little slower than other medical schools to put women in leadership and administration, said Karen Edison, director of the Center for Health Policy at MU. She was appointed as chair of the department of dermatology in 2003.

"I was the first department chair in the history of MU medical school," Edison said. “Another female faculty person held the position of chair in a different department for a few years, but she is now gone, and I am back to being the only one.”

Edison said she wants to see more women in leadership. "The discussion around the table and our planning for the future would be enhanced if more women were part of the discussion," she said. "I cannot provide this alone."

In the 37 years since the federal government enacted the Equal Employment Opportunity Act, more women have sought entrance to medical schools. This year, 54 of the 96 students who enrolled at the MU School of Medicine were female.

Judith Miles is a professor of pediatrics and pathology at MU and conducts autism research at Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders. Miles' father was a physician, and her mother a nurse. In her graduating class of 1975 at MU, there were 10 women.

But when Miles started medical school at MU after coming to Columbia with her husband and 2-year-old son, she remembers a remark — though spoken in jest — reflected the sentiment of that time. "If only doctors would stop having daughters, we would not have so many girls at medical school," she recalled someone saying.

Identifying the challenges

In the four decades since the act's passage, medicine has become a profession that is more open to women, , but some physicians say the change is only a perceived one.

Edison, for instance, wants to make the profession friendlier for women physicians and to see some flexibility in the way medical workplaces are structured. Opening a high-quality day care center at the medical school would be one big step in the right direction, she said. Currently there are no day care centers at University Hospital or MU medical school.

Rachel Brown, associate dean for student programs at the School of Medicine, thinks more work needs to be done in transforming attitudes toward women physicians. "And for that we need more women leaders in medicine," she said.

Brown said that in order to increase the number of women in leadership, the attitude of recruiters and the language of recruitment must change. Most job advertisements for leaders in medicine use male language — such as "forceful," "dynamic," and "leadership," words which Brown said exude an image of masculinity that works against prospects of women applicants. Although women leaders do not necessarily make better supervisors, they are better collaborators, Brown said, adding that collaboration is an essential component of effective leadership.

The women physicians come across as good multitaskers. . Edison looks after her 72-year-old mother, two grandsons and her own family as she strives to take care of herself and manage her department.

Emily Coberly practices inpatient and outpatient internal medicine. She has three children, the youngest just three months old, and a husband in medical school. She and her husband take turns looking after their children.

Unlike Coberly, whose parents live in Columbia and help baby-sit, Laine Young-Walker, a child psychiatrist, doesn't have extended family on whom she can depend. She and her husband, who works for an insurance company, depend on baby sitters to care for their two children.

Many of the female physicians interviewed expressed feelings of guilt about not having enough time for their children. Young-Walker said because her patients are children and so often in need of her attention, she sometimes finds it hard to decide whom to put first. "The frustration is you can't disconnect 'doctor' and 'mother' selves," she said.

Making an identity from a profession

The key for many female physicians is family support. Young-Walker, who was the first in her family to go to college, recalled her father, who never finished high school, urging her on.

"Education was stressed not by people who went through it but for its value to make me who I am," she said. 

In spite of the struggle to balance competing demands, female physicians continue to enjoy the work and find time for themselves.

"I have always been better off at ICU than New Year's parties," Miles said.

Young-Walker, who is helping to lead PTA for the third year, says it's all a matter of giving yourself time. For Fearing, who is expecting a third son, that's time to talk on the phone to friends during her commute to Columbia from Kansas City almost every weekday. For Brown, that's time for tennis.

Still, Brown said, at timesfinding a balance is difficult. She said she's had to work hard for understanding from her husband.

"For a long time, my husband didn't understand how much medicine is me," Brown said. "He would say that he didn't really appreciate what I am for the first 20 years of our marriage."

But a sense of identification with the job is overwhelming, Brown said. "It's not a job that you do, it's a thing that you are." 

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