Every March we honor Women’s History Month and celebrate the impact women have had in society. The field of healthcare has been specifically and uniquely impacted by women as their roles changed and evolved throughout history.
We have come a long way—from women being unable to enroll in medical school, to now becoming CEOs and industry titans—and women continue to serve as dynamic individuals in healthcare and contribute to its progress.
Women in American Medical History
Throughout American history, women were largely excluded from formal medical training. Typically, only men were admitted into medical school, and in the rare case that a woman would be accepted, she was often denied attendance at medical lectures and examinations. Women were allowed to practice as nurses and midwives, but not given the opportunity to become physicians.
This all began to change in the middle of the 19th century. In 1849, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman in America to earn a medical degree, paving the way for many to follow in her footsteps. Around the same time, the first female medical schools in the country were being formed, and some previously male-only schools became coeducational.
While this accessibility to medical education was certainly a great victory, women still faced many challenges after completing their degrees. Female inclusion in residencies, internships, and clinical positions remained an obstacle, as well as exclusion from membership in medical societies. Many women were forced to open their own dispensaries, clinics, and hospitals to continue their education. These extra steps discouraged many, leading to a decline in females pursuing a medical career.
In 1905, only 4% of all medical graduates were women, and by 1915, this statistic dropped to a mere 2.6%. Female participation in medical school struggled through most of the 20th century, but the 1970s brought major change. More people began advocating for advancement in women’s education, increasing awareness of sex discrimination in the medical field. By 1974, 22.4% of students entering medical school were women and the female presence has only continued to grow.
In 2019, women outnumbered men in U.S. schools for the first time ever.
Female Medical Pioneers
Elizabeth Blackwell, MD
As we noted before, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman granted an MD degree in 1849. Her journey to that degree began when a deathly ill friend stated she would have received better care if her doctor was a female. Dr. Blackwell applied to more than 10 medical schools before gaining admission and was actually encouraged by one of her professors to disguise herself as a man.
Like many early female doctors, she struggled to find work after graduation, and instead co-founded the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children. Dr. Blackwell also went on to create the Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary in 1867. Her efforts supported and encouraged generations of women hoping to pursue medical careers.
Susan LaFlesche Picotte, MD
Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte was the first Native American woman in the United States to earn a medical degree. She was the daughter of an Omaha chief, and when she was young she saw a Native American woman die because a white doctor would not care for her. She was urged to pursue a career in medicine by Alice Fletcher, an ethnologist Picotte cared for while teaching at a Quaker school on the Omaha reservation.
Picotte attended the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania and graduated top of her class in 1889. Dr. Picotte returned home to serve a community of over 1,300 people and often walked many miles to visit and treat her patients. In 1913, she started her own hospital to serve the Native American population of Waterhill, Nebraska.
Virginia Apgar, MD
Dr. Virginia Apgar made an incredible impact in the pediatric and neonatal fields through the creation of the Apgar score. In 1953, she created the first tool used to scientifically assess a neonate’s health risks and need for specific observation. Her tool has become the gold standard for determining the health of a newborn.
Dr. Apgar graduated from the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University in 1933. She hoped to pursue surgery, but a mentor discouraged her, leading her to study anesthesiology instead. In 1938, Dr. Apgar became the first Director of Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital’s new anesthesia division. She went on to study the effects of anesthesia, labor, and delivery on a newborn’s health.
Dr. Apgar started a second career in her 50s, earning a master’s degree in public health from Johns Hopkins University and working with the March of Dimes as the Vice President for Medical Affairs. Former U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Julius Richmond, said Apgar had done more to improve the health of mothers, babies, and unborn infants than anyone else in the 20th century.
Women in Medical Leadership
Thanks to the work of these pioneers, and generations of individuals who fought for access and equity, the number of women in healthcare has grown dramatically. Unfortunately, this representation has not spread to all levels of our field.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women comprise about 80% of the healthcare workforce, but fewer than 20% have key leadership roles. Additionally, in the U.S., women account for only about 18% of hospital CEOs, 16% of all deans and department chairs, 10% of senior authorship, and 7% of Editors-In-Chief at prestigious medical journals. It is clear there is still a considerable gap between men and women in leadership positions, with women being a clear minority.
Fortunately, in recent years a broader movement to boost female representation in healthcare leadership roles has been established. From inclusion and diversity committees to medical society initiatives—appreciation and respect for females in leadership have grown significantly. With more time and collaborative advocacy, women will undoubtedly continue to rise and become a stronger presence within senior medical positions.
Onsite Neonatal Supports Women in Leadership
Onsite Neonatal Partners believes in ensuring equal growth opportunities for female team members and their male counterparts. It is vital to build ladders for team members to climb, and to promote the individuals with the most potential and skill to grow within the company—regardless of gender.
Onsite encourages its female employees to serve in leadership roles on various committees and special project teams within the company. These opportunities allow team members to apply their skills, learn new tactics, and gain greater experience.
As of March 2021, more than 70% of Onsite’s senior leadership members are women, making it a true unicorn within the healthcare industry. This unique grouping of leadership perspectives influences the whole organization, creating strong hospital partnerships, a fulfilled workforce, and incredible patient encounters.
There is still much to be done to create access for women at all levels in healthcare, but Onsite is proud to be a leader in this space. The next generation of female pioneers is already making an impact in society as we all work together to support women in medicine and across the world.