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Doctors including female physicians agree that men make better surgeons, says bias test conducted on healthcare professionals

In a stark reminder of gender disparity in the field of medicine, men and women in healthcare strongly associate men with career/surgery, and women with family and family medicine

Healthcare professionals believe that men make better surgeons and shockingly, women doctors agree, indicating a marked gender bias in the field of medicine. Researchers from the Washington University in St. Louis conducted a “bias test (implicit and explicit biases)” and found that “healthcare professionals and surgeons hold implicit and explicit biases associating men with careers and surgery and women with family and family medicine.”

The researchers say that awareness of bias is an essential first step toward minimizing its potential harmful effect.

The researchers conducted the study to find out why there were so few women surgeons and physicians. They used two types of datasets for their research: The team reviewed 42,991 ‘Implicit Association Test’ records and conducted a cross-sectional study of 131 surgeons.

“Enrollment of women in medical school has been nearly equivalent to that of men in the US since 1999 and has recently surpassed that of men for the first time. Despite this apparent equality, as of 2017 only 41% of all faculty and approximately 24% of full professors were women. These gaps are even larger when looking at department chairs: only 14% are women. Many factors likely contribute to women’s lack of equal representation in medical careers beyond medical school. Perhaps academic medical careers are less interesting or attractive to women than they are to men, or maybe pressures within medical training and academics favor men over women,” says the report published in JAMA Network Open.

Data from the bias test reveals that both men and women in healthcare strongly 'implicitly' associate men with career and women with a family.

Concerning explicit bias, however, the report found that men in healthcare are more likely than women to associate men with career and women with a family.

These findings are similar to what the researchers found in their assessment of bias among surgeons.

“Surgeons tended to associate men with surgery and women with family medicine. Thus, from both data sets we found that, although men and women associated men with career and surgery (and women with family and family medicine), men were more likely than women to consciously express a bias linking men with career or surgery and women with family or family medicine,” says the report.

According to the researchers, such implicit or unconscious biases can severely hamper the advancement of women in the field of medicine. They state in their findings that implicit biases lead people to act in ways that are not necessarily in line with their explicit beliefs or values. For example, say the researchers, one may explicitly believe that men and women are equally good at math, but unconsciously or implicitly, one might be more likely to associate math with men than with women.

“These biases are shaped by the environment in which we live and are only weakly related to one’s conscious attitudes or beliefs. Importantly, implicit biases are associated with behaviors in socially sensitive contexts, such as interracial interactions,” says the team.

Future research, says the group, must replicate these findings and assess whether these biases are linked to existing gender disparities.

In an invited commentary, researchers, who are not part of the current study, say that the findings add to the understanding of how women are perceived in surgery and how this contributes to limiting their careers.

“Notably, (the study) demonstrates that this is not an external phenomenon — surgeons themselves hold biases that may affect the progression of women within the profession. The results appear to tell a clear and consistent story of ongoing gender bias in surgery that likely manifests in ways that affect the career success of women,” says the commentary.

Patients Too Do Not Often Recognize Women as Physicians

In a related study, which was led in New Orleans by Louisiana State University (LSU) Health Sciences Center, the researchers found significant gender bias among patients. In this study - which assessed patients’ assumptions about healthcare professionals’ roles based on gender - the researchers found that female physicians are less frequently identified as physicians by patients. While patients recognize male attending physicians as physicians 75.7% of the time, female attending physicians are recognized as physicians only 58.1% of the time. 

Patients recognize males as physicians 75.7% of the time, shows a survey. Female attending physicians, however, are recognized as physicians only 58.1% of the time. (Getty Images)

The study, published in the Journal of Women’s Health, also found that patients correctly identify male nurses as nurses significantly less frequently than they identify female nurses as nurses, showing that “gender stereotypes” continue to exist in healthcare. Patients only recognized 77.1% of male nurses, even as they recognized 91.1% of female nurses.

The research paper says that even though about 52% of all medical students are women, unconscious/implicit bias is so strong that even when women introduce themselves to patients as the doctor, patients fail to recognize the female as a physician. 

“The patients’ genders did not affect their recognition of physicians and nurses. Both male and female patients correctly recognized female physicians less than male and female more than male nurses. Patients’ ages, though, did. Those who were younger in age were better able to correctly identify male nurses as nurses and female attendings as physicians as compared to older patients,” says the report.