Women in the healthcare industry face disproportionate challenges in their field when compared to men. Female healthcare professionals experience high rates of mental health issues, such as alcohol abuse — one study found that female surgeons compared with female non-surgeons had more than double the rate of hazardous drinking. And though women account for 76% of all healthcare jobs, they earn as much as 30% less than their male coworkers and hold only 16% of leadership positions.
It seems the more we fight to gain our seats at the table, the fewer women we see leading our healthcare initiatives, our futures. Being a woman in the healthcare field is no easy task, but we can regain our power in this industry and make positive changes for ourselves and our communities.
This wave of change must begin with introspection, becoming fully aware of where we are today as a demographic in healthcare. Here are a few of the challenges women often face in the healthcare industry:
- Sexual Harassment
According to a study reviewing the experiences of female nurses, 43.15% of female nurses are sexually harassed. Here’s the breakdown of the type of abuse these women faced:
- 35% were verbally harassed
- 32.6% were non-verbally harassed
- 31% were physically harassed
- 40.8% were psychologically harassed
These numbers reveal a high prevalence of sexual harassment against female medical professionals — harassment committed by patients, coworkers, patients’ family members, and superiors. This type of harassment can leave lasting effects on women’s physical, mental, and emotional health.
- Unequal Pay
As we discussed above, women in healthcare earn 30% less than male coworkers. However, researchers found that while women are getting paid significantly less, they spend more time with their patients than men in the same professions. This debunks the common argument that women simply work fewer hours than their male coworkers.
- Gender Bias
There is a great deal of gender bias in the healthcare industry. This includes the pay disparities explained above, disadvantages when negotiating contracts, and a lack of trust from other colleagues and patients.
Female doctors and medical professionals are much more likely to experience negative perceptions and backlash than their male counterparts. Researchers interviewed female medical professionals and discovered that despite acquiring one of the most respected jobs, colleagues, employers, and patients still don’t recognize these women as credible, and treat them worse than male doctors.
What’s more, though these women face significant biases based on their gender, they report higher rates of job satisfaction. This suggests that starting early — in medical school or residency, for example — women in healthcare positions are conditioned to accept poorer working conditions and find great value in their work despite challenges.
- Mental Health Challenges
Because of many of the challenges listed above, female healthcare workers experience burnout much sooner and more frequently than men working the same jobs. This burnout (caused by longer hours, greater emotional burdens, and other factors) leads to emotional distress, lack of excitement and motivation for their work, and a decline in morale.
As a result, many female nurses, doctors, and physicians develop symptoms of depression, PTSD, and anxiety. According to research, female doctors are at a much higher risk of depression than male doctors, with a shockingly high suicide rate.
- Marital Disadvantages
When women enter the medical field, they find much higher rates of work-family conflict than men. Women are more likely to have marital conflict and get divorced, which may be due to longer working hours and taking on the majority of home responsibilities. Not only this, but women doctors tend to marry male doctors, and often settle for less pay and less recognition in the comfort of a dual-income household, giving out to their husbands to earn more income.
To make a difference in this disparate environment, female medical professionals should lobby for systematic change and stand up for themselves. Women can fight for greater protection from upper management, speak up about harassment and mental health, and work with other female doctors to act as a united force for change.
If you’re working as a woman in the healthcare field, know that you are seen and valued for what you do. Other women need role models and leaders they can look up to so they can know they can make a difference, too. Push for change, don’t accept less than you deserve, demand respect, and show other women that they can do the same.
If you don’t know where to start, here are a few resources that might help:
National Women’s Health Network, a network of activists who fight for women's healthcare access and equity.
Nurses on Boards from the American Nurses Foundation, a resource dedicated to increasing the number of nurses serving on boards of directors.
Mental health resources for nurses, full of resources to improve the mental health of nurses.
Forbes, Empowering Women To Succeed In Health Care Leadership, discusses ways we can embolden women in healthcare
Author bio: Hannah Bennett is a content specialist for Ark Behavioral Health, a behavioral health provider that’s dedicated to providing evidence-based addiction treatment to those recovering from drug or alcohol abuse.