Why Care About Being a Woman in Cardiology? Part II

My fellowship experience is, in a way, a case study on increasing the number of women in cardiology. My class consists of four women and one man. Yes, eighty percent of my cardiology fellowship year is female. We are probably making history here.

I was initially worried about how we would be received since the classes above mine had the typical ratio of one woman and four men. During medical school and residency, every female physician-in-training I knew had faced incidents of sexism – from physicians, from nurses and from patients. Would it be worse as I started fellowship training in a particularly male-dominated field? To my surprise, it was not. I had the fortune of ending up at an institution that has female attendings in each of the subspecialties of cardiology, as well as cardiothoracic surgery, and where the staff is just as supportive of female physicians as our male counterparts. In fact, there have been nurses, nurse practitioners and echocardiographers who have stopped me in the past year to express how excited they were to work with such a woman-heavy fellowship class.

How many intelligent, dedicated female residents have we met who are fascinated by cardiology, but end up not choosing it because it is felt to be an impractical field for women? Many of the concerns that women have about the field are not necessarily about the job itself, but about the culture surrounding it. This is not just theoretical- witnessing an environment that is receptive to women has a palpable impact. At my institution, two of the four residents applying to cardiology last year were women. This year, the proportion is even higher- five of the six cardiology applicants are women. That is a full eighty-three percent.

During my residency training I pictured the “typical” cardiology fellow as male. The interns at my institution who are interacting with such a high ratio of female future cardiologists may develop a mind-set that is still inconceivable at most institutions across the world- they may picture a “typical” cardiology fellow as a woman. Let that sink in for a moment. This is startling, but there is absolutely no good reason that it should be startling. There is no reason that the experience at my institution should be an isolated incident.

Cardiology is not inherently a field for men, and if we continue to treat it as if it is, we perpetuate the myth. Yet as we move forward, it is important to realize that this is not about “us” versus “them.” Plenty of men are supportive of woman physicians, and in fact most of the male physicians of my generation appear to be blind to gender in the workplace. What is needed in order for women to be on par with men in the field of cardiology is a change in the deeply ingrained attitudes of both men and women. An increase in the proportion of women entering cardiology would help lead to such a change. Even more importantly, the words and actions of us, as women in cardiology, have a significant impact.

We are the ones that the field is looking toward to set the tone. Though we may not have anticipated it, circumstances have granted us the opportunity to not just be cardiologists, but to have the more richly nuanced experience of being women in cardiology at a turning point in the field. The question is, will we take on being women in cardiology, not simply as a demographic, but as a role? Instead of trying to slip in and be “one of the boys,” we can be trailblazers, pushing to form an environment that is receptive to women. In doing so, we can modernize cardiology and loosen the restrictions set forth by history. We are in a position to level the playing field so that the most qualified and passionate physicians enter cardiology, regardless of gender. We are in a position to help ensure that women already in the field are treated equitably.  We are in a position to change the culture, for women in cardiology and for womankind. There are few of us in this position. Will we make use of it?

This article was authored by Jenine John, MD, a Fellow in Training at Stony Brook University Hospital, NY.