Women and Medicine

Dr Shanthi Mendis 

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It was only about 100 years ago that women won the right to study and practice medicine in the same way as men. We have come a long way since then. For several centuries, women have made a major contribution to the practice of medicine, in particular as nurses and midwives, professions which are still dominated by women. In developing countries where physicians are scarce, nurses and midwives take an even greater role in health care delivery.

At present, although there are an equal number of male and female medical undergraduates in some countries, there is still a dearth of women in leadership positions in medicine, all over the world. Although progress has been made, medicine can do a great deal more to contribute to gender equality. 

Investing in women

In September 2015, world leaders from 193 nations adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, along with a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (read this freely available chapter).  Goal 5 is to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. Based on current trends, it is predicted that it will be at least 50 years before there is gender equality among parliamentarians even in high income countries and 118 years before the wage gap between men and women is closed worldwide.

Providing females with equal access to education, employment, health care, and opportunities to participate in all spheres of life, including political, economic, and household decision-making processes is a good investment. In fact, reaching SDG 5 on gender equality has been estimated to contribute up to USD 28 trillion to global GDP by 2025. 

Achieving gender equality 

Achieving gender equality as envisioned in SDG 5 will require enforceable legislation that promotes empowerment of all women and girls. Transformative change can happen if rights, priorities, and needs of women, including those working in the field of medicine are taken into account. Medical fraternity could be at the forefront of this transformation by providing equal opportunities for female representation in medical/nursing organizations, high level committees, executive working groups, and selection panels.

Further, maternal health has to be awarded top priority in planning and financing health services at all levels. Mother`s should be supported to advance in their medical careers through high-quality child care and variable working hours. Tangible measures are also needed to eliminate wage inequality between males and females, in all fields of health. If action can begin in this manner, and replace rhetoric, medical fraternity would set an example to decision makers all over the world on how to make tangible advances towards the attainment of gender equality by 2030. 


Gender equality on overseas Parliaments. June 2014. House of Commons Hansard

SDG 5: Gender equality. 2016. PwC. 

Dr Shanthi Mendis is a fellow at the Geneva Learning Foundation in Switzerland. She coordinated the global program for Prevention and Management of non-communicable diseases at the World Health Organization, Geneva, Switzerland. She was the Senior Adviser/coordinator of the World Health Organization cardiovascular and non-communicable diseases programs for 20 years until 2015. 

Dr Mendis is the co-author of An Introduction to Population-level Prevention of Non-Communicable Diseases, which is available in print and online from Oxford University Press. 

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