How medical specialties vary by gender

Staff Writer
AMA Wire
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While many factors influence what specialty medical students and residents choose, recent data show gender may stimulate what and where future physicians practice.

Using data from a variety of sources, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) 2015 Report on Residents identified the top specialties among 86,439 residents in the graduate medical education class of 2013-2014.

Based on key findings, women make up a larger percentage of residents in:

  • Family medicine (about 58 percent)
  • Psychiatry (about 57 percent)
  • Pediatrics (about 75 percent)
  • Obstetrics/gynecology (about 85 percent)

The data show male residents prefer to specialize in:

  • Surgery (about 59 percent)
  • Emergency medicine (about 62 percent)
  • Anesthesiology (about 63 percent)
  • Radiology (about 73 percent)
  • Internal medicine (about 54 percent)

The data reflect a 2013 study from the Journal of the American College of Surgery, which found women were substantially underrepresented in neurosurgery, orthopedics, urology, general surgery and radiology. The study found female medical students were more likely than males to enter programs with higher proportions of female residents.

Overall, 57.5 percent of women who completed residency from 2004 through 2013 are practicing in the state of residency training, compared to 49.1 percent of men. The pattern of retention varies across specialties.

While these numbers are based on residents who graduated from medical programs in the United States and Canada, international medical school graduates also reflected the same gender-specific breakdown of specialties. Whether abroad or in America, specialties like obstetrics/gynecology, pediatrics and radiology consistently show a great gender divide, according to the AAMC.

But why? Brandi Ring, MD, a fourth-year resident in obstetrics/gynecology at York Hospital in York, Maine, said that gender can impact the culture of a specialty and ultimately the residents who practice in that field.

“In medicine, specialties swing from one extreme to the next,” she said. “Years ago, gynecology was dominated by men but today, it’s just the opposite. Now I’m seeing a lot of male medical students who completely disregard OB as an option because they think it’s a ‘female specialty,’ which is a huge disservice.”

Dr. Ring said she’s noticed the same gender-bias in some male-dominated specialties, which may deter female residents from pursuing them. “Orthopedic surgery is still very male dominated and it’s one of those fields where the culture of the specialty reflects a ‘boy’s boy’ image,” she said. “I don’t think many women have known how to fit into that group or feel particularly motivated to deal with it.”

Michael Best, MD, a fourth-year anesthesiology resident at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center said he chose his specialty based on the field that made him “feel happiest” but noted that, “I also looked at the personality types of my peers and considered how I would fit in with them.”

“It is difficult to know whether gender plays a role although it is evident that there is a gender disparity given that in my residency year, there are four women and 15 men,” he said.

He added that the patient experience and environment residents prefer may also influence what they practice. He said certain specialties -- like family medicine and pediatrics – may attract residents who prefer to focus on long-term patient relationships while specialties like anesthesiology and emergency medicine can appeal to those who thrive on crisis management and caring for patients under extreme circumstances.

Tell us: What specialty did you choose and why? Do you think gender impacts the specialties residents practice? Share your thoughts with your peers on our Facebook page. 

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Drs. Ring and Best make excellent points. My hope would be that both women and men can be excellent mentors to both genders. I am in radiology and was definitely introduced to the specialty by my mother. However, while weighing my residency options, many of the men in radiology at her institution stepped in to talk to me about the specialty. At the end of the day, I am very pleased with my choice. I think a lot more women would love radiology if they give the clerkship elective a chance in medical school.
As a woman you are raise to consider a family life. We are talented and as we move into more invasive areas we need to become leaders. It is not gender influence your choice but gender alters the field of medicine. We become more compliant accepting that others can preform our roles. We have to be physican team leaders. Even in the miltary where woman are not as large in numbers the VA handbook would like to eliminate the physician as a team player in these largely populated woman fields as Anesthesiologist and family physicians. We need to enter more areas of medicine and mentor not only in education but leadership.
As a female medical student, I am very aware of the differences in representations of gender among residency fields. However, this article mixes correlation and causation. While one field may have a higher percentage of women than another, delving deeper into the causation, not correlation, can help us understand these differences. Similar to what M. Best was quoted in the article, we need to further examine gender role vs gender disparity.
This is just more objective evidence that in spite of the prejudices of some liberals, there are unambiguous and measurable differences in the way that men and women think and relate to life. Personally, as a happily married man with 2 daughters AND 2 sons I am grateful for and much enjoy those differences
I am a third year medical student considering specialties and was surprised that this article did not acknowledge patient preferences. Whatever your thoughts on gender equality and bias, on my OB/Gyn rotation half the patients did not want a male medical student in the room. Many of the Gyn patients preferred female physicians... which naturally leads me away from this specialty.
I chose pediatrics after serious consideration of internal medicine because I had a wonderful mentor during my 3rd year clerkship. I also had fond memories of my childhood pediatrician. At that time, my daughter was a baby and I had to make lots of trips to his office for her. All these role models were men, and I am female.
Medical practice awarence demand only determination and affection towards the profession and the art of science that appreciate the gross percentage of faculties irrespective to the gender and the age.
I am a woman who trained (in the 1980s) in 2 specialties - internal medicine and emergency medicine. I see from the article that both of these are considered more male-dominated specialties. I chose them because they were the areas that most interested me and could make a difference. That said, it must be recognized that, unlike in Europe, the US (government and private sector) does very little to assist women in caring for their children (something still felt to be pretty much solely the woman's duty). When being interviewed for my EM residency, I was asked if I were married, intended to get married, intended to have children, and how I would care for them and still attend to my EM career. Apart from the fact that these questions violated federal law, they demonstrated the different expectations of male and female residents outside of work; these expectations also affect the work environment. It doesn't have to be this way. Men and women have many similarities and, of course, many differences - but this should have no bearing on their ability to choose a specialty which they find intellectually stimulating and a means of helping others. I would like to say it has changed a lot since the 1980s, but I don't feel this is so. We have more in common than we differ; I wish we could all see this.
I went into ENT a surgical speciality because I liked it best. The attendings and the residents I met as a medical student impressed me as the happiest bunch of guys of any field. So, despite advise from several people to go into more traditional female specialities , I became the first woman in my general surgery program and then the first woman in my ENT program. It was the right choice for me. I love my work and hope to keep practicing until I drop. <br/> As it turns out, I beleive it is a great field for woman because of the wonderful life style options available.
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