Can Women in Medicine Ever Have it All?

A couple of weeks ago I was at the grocery store and I ran into one of the top neurologists at our hospital. It was odd to see her in a different context. She’s a slight woman, usually white-coat clad with glasses and a stern gaze. When she smiled at me and gave a small wave as I passed her in the aisle, it took a few moments for it to register who she was. I exchanged pleasantries with her and took in what she looked like “on the outside”. Still slight in build, but sans glasses and clad in jeans and a nice blouse. Her cart was filled with produce– and baby food–and her adorable toddler was babbling at me from his seat in the shopping cart.

The next time I crossed paths with her in the hospital, I realized that my perspective of her had undergone a tectonic shift; one that I wasn’t proud of. I like to envision myself as a forward-thinking, equality-proponing young woman; but after that encounter in the grocery store, I saw her as softer. Where before I had been intimidated by her, as I am by most physicians, somehow seeing her as a mother had really changed my perspective. I wondered, then, if her colleagues had– or did — feel the same way.

Not long after my paradigm shift, I read an article in Time Magazine that declared women make better doctors than men. The study looked specifically at how various doctors, of varying genders, performed patient care with diabetic patients. Women doctors consistently outranked their male contemporaries on compliance– i.e. following the rules and standards of patient care. While it could be argued that their strict adherence to these rules meant they lacked innovation, in the case of diabetes care, consistent monitoring and maintenance of the condition is the touchstone of a patient’s success in living a healthy life. Interestingly enough, the male doctors completed more procedures– which implies that they didn’t spend as much time as the female doctors did talking with their patients, and perhaps their higher turnover rate didn’t have positive implications.

couple at doctors

Some might argue that women are “wired” to be more compassionate, better listeners and more emotionally involved in their patients care. Perusing through the archives of The New York Times, I discovered that people have been asking these questions for many decades; an article from 1988 asks simply, “Are women better doctors?”  — the article opens with a clever anecdote that, I’ll admit, had me fooled. I fell into the trap that it so cleverly set up in just a few sentences. It proved to me that the paradigm around front-runners in medicine is still male-dominant, perhaps even, in the mind of women in the field themselves.

As a young woman, I’m constantly bombarded with media and social experiences that pressure me to “have it all”. But what is, “It”? A stellar job, money, a home, a relationship, children, pets, a wardrobe full of Anne Kleine, an ass you could bounce a dime off.  Somehow, I’m going to be in school, hold down a full-time job, write as a second job (and a first love), keep myself fit and healthy (physically, mentally and spiritually) and, most importantly, make it look like I’m not trying.  Recently I started reading a book by Courtney Martin that was, I guess, my lame attempt at seeking black-and-white validation. Martin’s book exceeded my expectations by providing that in a single sentence: “We are the daughters of the feminists who said ‘You can be anything’ and we heard ‘You have to be everything.’”

Medical school is somewhat notoriously filled with high-achievers who hole up over a mountain of textbooks, shot-gunning caffeine, memorizing with the ferocity of someone has just been told they are going to become an amnesiac. This archetype is not limited to women, though I venture that women will consistently fall into that “have to be everything” trap with bleaker prospects than their brothers and boyfriends.


The female medical student, the someday-doctor, will begin early to cultivate the art of suffering in silence. She will stay up all night memorizing every muscle, every pathway, every reaction. Wrapped in anxiety, she will forgo the sleep she so desperately craves in favor of just one more hour with a textbook cracked open on her chest. Still, watch as she wakes up, puts on her “face”, covers up the fatigue because no one wants to see that, no one wants to be reminded of their own struggle, and she knows this, and she doesn’t want to be a burden. She drinks another cup of coffee, skips lunch, beats herself up because NO, she doesn’t have time to go to the gym. She’ll graduate, finally, with her wrinkless white coat, a new stethoscope and the comatose expression of someone who is beyond exhaustion. She will become “the intern”, “the gunner”, the others will call her Christina Yang and she’ll wonder who even has time to watch Grey’s Anatomy. And as she moves up the ranks, the rungs to which she so tightly grips will continue to isolate her from the prospects of marriage and family, and her mother will say things like, “Don’t you want a boyfriend?” and “Does this mean I’m never getting any grandchildren?” She will feel defeated, because isn’t she doing what she’s supposed to be doing? Achieving? Succeeding? Being the best?

And what happens when Feminista MD finds a mate and procreates? She has to, like every working mother, find the balance between “mom” and “working woman”. But when you go to work and hold another person’s life in your hands, when they need you to be undistracted, single-mindedly focused on their needs, willing to work, how is a woman with a child, with a partner, with a conscience, able to do that? How can one women be divided, so crisply, into two? Or three? Or four?

How does a woman even begin to have it all, short of shattering into a million, fragmented bits of herself, short of having multiple personalities that can always be the person she is expected to be, to everyone in her life? If she is parsed out, divvied up like a birthday cake, what’s left for her? Who is she when the MD, the husband, the children and the ambition– are taken away?

Would she even want to meet her anyway?

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Abby Norman

Abby Norman is a science writer who enjoys prodding topics that range from the mundane to the insane. She currently works as a health guide working with high risk diabetes patients. When she's not at her desk, she can usually be found in the hospital library, the OR or the morgue. When she's not researching or working, she also write part-time for BHM Healthcare Solutions.


  1. Great post. I am a family doctor with 3 children. I am extremely fortunate to have an incredible husband (who is not a physician) that wants to stay home and raise our children. I realize I am in the minority but I also have many female colleagues from medical school who are married, have thriving practices and wonderful children, not to mention fulfilling lives outside of medicine and family. It’s totally doable.

    • Abby Norman

      Thank you! It’s reassuring to know that it is possible; I think, at the beginning of a medical career, a lot of things about it seem insurmountable. But that’s why it’s so great to have those who have “gone before us” into medicine share their experiences!! 🙂

  2. Chantal Mendes

    This is a really great article about an issue I think about constantly! I think it’s very comforting for me to know some fantastic female physicians who are also mothers and see how they are able to make time for their families while still achieving great things in the workplace.