Back to Top

Even when female doctors establish that they are, in fact, doctors, many women say patients still don’t respect their opinions.

Calgar recalled a moment when a female colleague asked her to weigh in on a case. She'd made a diagnosis and treatment plan, but the patient's family wanted a second opinion. Calgar introduced herself to the family, reviewed the patient's chart, and ultimately agreed with her co-worker's diagnosis. The family was incensed.

"[The father] asked to speak with the person in charge, which happened to be me," Calgar told Revelist. "He got upset and stated he wanted to speak with 'a man in charge.' When I informed him that both supervising physicians, the administrator on call, the shift administrator, and the medical director on call were all female, he said he didn't believe me."

The man’s son then joined the fray, saying he didn't believe the two women were actually doctors. Calgar gave the family the option of continuing their treatment with female doctors or leaving the hospital. The family left.

This preference for male doctors has been proven in scientific research. When deciding between a male doctor, a female doctor, or whichever doctor has more experience, one study found 60% of adults would choose the male doctor. Only 21% prefer to be treated by the doctor with the most experience.

female doctors
photo: iStock

On top of being discounted and ignored, some female doctors say they have been sexually harassed or assaulted by their patients.

Dr. Laura Richardson, an adolescent medicine specialist at Seattle Children's Hospital, recalled a time when a patient tried to kiss her while she stitched up a cut on his hand. Another doctor, who asked to remain anonymous, said a patient once grabbed her hand and kissed it, while telling her how beautiful she is.

"Another [patient] began to describe the location of his chest pain by trying to touch between my breasts," the same doctor recalled. "He was also completely nude, which is not how we set up our consults."

In one survey, 75% of female physicians said they had been harassed by a patient at some point in their careers. Settings included emergency rooms, clinics, and even the doctor's own office.

"In my experience, [harassment] has been a series of small affronts that frankly seem par for the course of a female physician," the anonymous doctor said.

female doctor
photo: iStock

That course may well change as more women become doctors.

Almost a third of all physicians today are women, compared to less than 20% in 1970. In certain specialties, like gynecology and pediatrics, they make up the majority.

As women gain traction in medical fields, respect for their opinions — and personal space — will hopefully follow. Until then, doctors said it's important to stay vigilant.

"Sometimes our own staff don't recognize these biases themselves," Calgar said. "...Sadly, we get used to it."