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Women in Federal Medicine
As a father of three daughters, I have a special sensitivity to women’s issues of equality, especially in the workplace. My daughters would confirm that I often tell them they live in a particularly exciting time for women in this country. Possibly for the first time in history they can consider a career in any field of endeavor they desire. They are free to explore the frontiers of their talents, limited only by their willingness to work towards a goal. Even the pay gap between male and female employees appears to be narrowing. I feel particularly blessed to be raising daughters in a country that is founded on principles that ensure my comments to my daughters are true. Certainly there are many places on this planet where a father cannot offer such seemingly limitless opportunity. Granted, there are still areas within our society where men still maintain an unfair advantage, though these examples appear to be fading fast.
The striking and relatively recent transformation women have had on federal medicine is apparent when one considers that the first woman physician commissioned as a medical officer in the regular Army was in 1953. Though women are still restricted from serving in combat units (only the Coast Guard has no restrictions) they are certainly not isolated from combat. This fact was clearly demonstrated to me in Afghanistan as I cared for female wounded that were, as often as not, brought in by female medics. Women have been a part of federal medicine from the beginning, serving on all of our nation’s battlefields, often with little status or recognition. How striking the change from our past when I noted the preponderance of generals at a recent Army medical symposium were women.
The increasing leadership role played by women in medicine is evident with women often outnumbering men in medical school applications. While this trend is gratifying there remain unanswered questions about unequal demands of career women in the home. A 2009 study in Academic Medicine of a Minnesota medical faculty noted significant differences between male and female faculty outside of work. The professional women in this study were more likely to be single (women 19%, men 5%) and more likely to be without children (women 16%, men 9%). One of the most striking statistics was women tended to cite child care obstacles to their careers twice as often as men. This strikes a chord with me personally since I often hear my daughters including thoughts of child rearing in their future plans. As a young man, I do not recall ever considering children as I contemplated my career. Perhaps I am not as socially evolved as I thought (I am sure my wife would agree).
As women, and perhaps my daughters, take their rightful place throughout all aspects of medicine, it is vital that federal medicine leaders take steps to ensure equality extends beyond the work place for both men and women. As traditional family roles and titles (bread winner, homemaker) blur, federal medicine should take a proactive stance in defining and developing innovative solutions to parental leave policies and child care, among other family issues. Women, and men, should not have to choose between family and career. Rather we should commit ourselves to create work environments that encourage and facilitate both a healthy family life and a satisfying career. I know my daughters deserve no less.