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I’ve seen at least 8 gynecologists over the course of my life, and all of them were women. It’s something I never thought twice about. Of course my gynecologist would be a woman. I hadn’t even considered that a man might perform my pap smear, give me advice on birth control, and one day help me transition through menopause. But that’s my Millennialism talking.
For the better part of the last two centuries, gynecology was a male-dominated field. That only recently changed. In 1970, just 7% of gynecologists were women. Today, around 59% are, and that number will continue to rise as more and more women enter the field — and fewer men do. This sharp shift in the gender split has stirred up a lot of controversy in recent years. While the fact that women now dominate any sector of medicine is worth celebrating, the trend has raised concerns about what the lack of gender diversity may mean for the future of women’s health.
Although men have taken the lead in gynecology for the last couple centuries, throughout most of history, women were in charge. In Ancient Egypt, men weren’t allowed to be a part of any ritual that dealt with gynecological care, so midwives attended to all women’s health concerns. Similarly, in Ancient Greece, female physicians were considered the authorities. According to Bustle, “while men wrote gynecological texts in great numbers, women were often the ones doing the practical work of midwifery and examination, and the most highly-skilled ones were viewed as equal to male doctors.”
This all changed with the advent of modern medicine in the 1800s. Women were denied entrance to medical school, so men stepped in to provide gynecological care. I use “care” loosely here, since a routine pelvic exam generally involved a male doctor kneeling between a woman’s legs and palpating her genitals, but performing no direct examination beyond that. Anything further was considered unseemly. During these exams, male physicians were often supervised by female chaperones, who would comfort the patient and serve as a witness to prevent any funny business. This practice continues today in many cultures where it’s frowned upon for women to see male physicians.
During this era, gynecology was highly limited and riddled with misconceptions. While there were definite advances — like the invention of the forceps — it was largely centered around childbirth and there was little drive to innovate. Women’s health was treated as an extension of men’s health, and male practitioners believed there wasn’t much more to learn about the female body. Ha!
We’ve come a long way since then. Women fought tooth and nail to enter medicine, and still struggled to get into medical schools in the 1970s. But when they did, the field of gynecology quickly became a hotbed for women's empowerment. The percentage of female gynecologists rose steadily from then on, and with each decade, we've seen enormous leaps and bounds.
Today, gynecology is bursting with innovation (3D-printed ovaries, anyone?) and it is a highly attractive specialty for budding doctors. Many are drawn to it because it’s “happy medicine” — you deal mostly with life, not death. Plus, gynecology allows doctors to form unique, long-term relationships with their patients, helping them navigate each chapter of their life.
Although the field is a clear draw for both women and men, the gender split is becoming more pronounced. According to the LA Times, 82% of gynecological residents were women in 2018. And by 2025, women are predicted to make up two-thirds of practicing gynecologists. Simultaneously, fewer men are entering the field. Why the shift? For one, men are often dissuaded from pursuing gynecology because of stigmas, lower chances of landing a job, or a general discomfort with offering women instruction on how to care for their bodies. Meanwhile, female medical students and residents are more inspired than ever.
Contrary to popular belief, most women don’t care much about the gender of their gynecologist, as long as they’re empathetic and attentive to their needs. And interestingly, many patients who do opt for male gynecologists report greater satisfaction. It’s widely thought that male gynecologists go out of their way to better understand the patient’s experience and “make up for” their knowledge gap through deeper listening.
For this reason, and many others, the medical community is concerned that a lack of gender diversity in the field will mean a lower quality of care overall — to which many women practitioners say Oh really? Try us.
Despite the controversy, it’s a clear win that women have returned to a position of power in gynecology. With more women caring for women, they can have a profound impact on the healthcare system and pave the way for future generations of women to leave their mark.
While men still overwhelmingly hold leadership roles in gynecology and obstetrics, that will soon shift too. Younger doctors will move up the ladder and into positions of power, where they can steer organizational change and make decisions that impact loads of women for years to come.
Like in any field, having a healthy mix of talent in gynecology is essential to growth and innovation — so the more men who enter the field, the merrier. Hopefully the medical community can find a way to support any young doctor who feels called to a career in gynecology, regardless of gender, race, religion, or any other factor. If you opt to devote your career to women’s health, you’re already doing something pretty awesome for the world.