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International Women's Day: Women in medicine by Dr. Jyoti Bajpai & Dr. Sharda M

M3 India Newsdesk Mar 07, 2020

Though medicine is a male-dominated field, there are women who have broken the mould and have come up to achieve laurels in their chosen specialities. Here, Dr. Jyoti Bajpai and Dr. Sharda M writes on six such female doctors known for their contributions to medicine.

Kalpana Chawla was part of a space mission, Arundhati Roy won the Booker prize, Kiran Bedi is an exemplary policewoman, Sudha Murthy a renowned entrepreneur, and Indra Nooyi, one of the top business executives; these Indian women have made their mark and are household names. But, how many of us have heard of Anandibai Joshi, Muthulakshmi Reddy, Indira Hinduja, Firuza Parikh or Padmavathy Iyer? These are women doctors who have made great strides in various fields of medicine.

Dr. Anandibai Joshi

She was the first to attain a western medicine degree in 1886. An ambitious woman, Dr. Joshi was married at the age of nine but she travelled to New York with the help of her husband, fought all odds, and graduated with MD from the Medical College of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy

The doctor established the Cancer Institute (Adyar) in 1954, besides being the first woman legislator of British India. Dr. Reddy’s professional and personal choices in life reflect her fight with the norms and an attempt at facilitating better life for women and children.

Dr. V Shanta

She was one of the women doctors, who joined the Adyar Cancer Institute in its early years and emerged as one of India’s best and few women oncologists. Throughout her career she has worked on in-depth research on cancer, its prevention, treatment and spreading awareness. However, it is her dedication towards providing organised care for cancer patients that makes her a real achiever.

Dr. Indira Hinduja

She gave India its first test-tube baby and has also made a name pioneering the Gamete Intrafallopian Transfer (GIFT) technique. With her relentless trials with in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) before finding success in 1986 and her dedication to the field of infertility, she sets a fine example for younger doctors.

Dr. Padmavathy Iyer

This doctor established India’s first heart foundation, the All India Heart Foundation. A Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan awardee, Dr. Iyer is credited for introducing a DM in cardiology aside from laying the foundation for cardiology departments in many Indian medical colleges.

Dr. Firuza Parikh

She is known for performing the first Intracytoplasmic Sperm Injection of South East Asia in India, created the record at a relatively young age. Dr. Jayashree Mondkar – the one behind the first breast milk bank in India, joins the ranks of Indian women doctors, who have served the society through their profession.

What is common among these women is that they believe nothing is impossible as the word itself shouts, “I’m possible” and the fact that they serve as role models for the current batch of young medical aspirants!

Women face a multitude of challenges in accomplishing their professional goals in all fields; and medicine is no exception. Though the proportion of women entering the field of medicine have successively increased over the years, the top leadership positions in most specialities are still held by men. Men are still at the helm of most committees and professional societies.

In the oncology sector, surveys have been conducted among women and male oncology professionals to study the gender climate, both at national and international levels. These reveal that only around one-third of the oncology teams are led by women. In addition, in India, there are very few oncology teams with more women than men.

In India, many women have to fight for their rights. With the prevailing social evils like child marriage and dowry, the girl child is considered a burden on the family. She has to fight to complete her basic education, despite government programs like “Beti bacchao, Beti Padao”. And then you have medical education, which requires five and a half years of MBBS or graduation, three years of post-graduation and three more years of super-specialisation (in some fields), involving nearly 12 years of gruelling labour during the most ‘biologically’ productive times of their lives. This is reminiscent of the ‘vanavaasa’ of ancient times; the women are over 30 years when they complete their education. This process requires both financial and emotional support from their families. There is a collision between the biological clock and the education prospects and this is not acceptable in all families.

Women are still stereotyped as homemakers rather than professionals. Many doctors take breaks during this education process; after joining back, changed priorities and new demands make them settle for lower posts or education goals, compared to their male counterparts. Even after completion of education, women face challenges like maintaining work-family balance and dealing with societal bias, remuneration differences, and gender discrimination, to name a few.

What can be done?

Professional organisations and societies should acknowledge the existence of gender bias. Flexible work timings, bias-changing interventions, child-care at workplace, mentorship programs and soft-skills training programs may go a long way to help achieve gender parity. Professional organizations like ESMO (European Society of Medical Oncology) have a special Women for Oncology (W4O) committee and dedicated activities to encourage gender parity in oncology.

Women doctors bring in special qualities to their profession. Attaining gender-parity is of utmost importance for an efficient workforce. Recognition of gender disparity in medicine is itself not enough. The existing socio-cultural milieu and taboos in the professional world are subtle and difficult to fight. While male doctors are automatically supported and respected by the family and society, many women still have to fight the gender roles to establish herself in her profession. Lack of senior role models and mentors also hamper her growth in the chosen field.

On this International Women’s Day, let’s salute all the female doctors, who reached pinnacles in their fields despite all these odds against them!


Disclaimer- The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author's and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of M3 India.

The authors Dr. Jyoti Bajpai & Dr. Sharda M are Professors of Medical Oncology at Tata Memorial Centre, Mumbai.

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