At a time when women are dominant in specialties such as pediatrics or obstetrics and gynecology, you might think that gender disparities in medicine are largely a thing of the past—yet recent research suggests otherwise. 

A study by Sarah Cater, a resident in the radiology department at the School of Medicine, revealed that gender disparities still exist in her specialty. Cater, the lead author of the study, found that globally, only 33.5 percent of radiologists are female and just more than 27 percent of U.S. members of the Radiological Society of North America are women. 

“I became interested in studying the gender disparity in radiology because I wanted to better understand why women weren't entering my chosen field,” Cater said. 

She explained that the characteristics of a career in radiology—from a predictable schedule to generous compensation while practicing to a hefty impact on patient care—should reasonably make radiology a specialty equally attractive to people of any gender. However, finding herself to the be the only woman in the room at many interviews for her residency in radiology, Cater wanted to know what was maintaining this gap. 

She noted that it is possible this disparity stems in part from a lack of prominent female leaders in the field. 

“As a female medical student, it can be hard to imagine yourself in a specialty where everyone you meet on your rotation—faculty, residents—is male,” Cater said. 

At Duke however, Cater added that women are made to feel more welcome in the radiology department.

Karen Johnson, assistant professor and residency program director of radiology, actively works to combat the gender disparity at Duke. Johnson organized a new committee on gender and diversity, which held a retreat in the Fall for radiology faculty and residents to learn about implicit biases and the challenges individuals face when they don’t look like a stereotypical radiologist.

“Because of [Johnson], we have a female radiologist modeling leadership and compassion to us every day,” Cater said.

Although Cater noted that this represents a step in the right direction at Duke in radiology, gender imbalances—especially at the level of leadership positions—are still prevalent in many medical fields.

“Medicine as a whole is traditionally very hierarchical and patriarchal, and in the past women were underrepresented in every specialty. This has improved in the past 10 to 20 years, and women are the gender majority in many specialties,” Cater said. “But, even in these specialties, women are underrepresented among faculty and department chairs.”

Professor of Medicine Sana Al-Khatib described cardiology as another medical field lagging behind general trends in improved gender equity.

“Women are still vastly outnumbered, and I don’t know if this will change anytime soon,” Al-Khatib said. “Cardiology is typically more demanding in terms of number of hours and intensity, and I think that makes it less attractive to some women. I hope to see this change as we have more successful women who have been able to be successful at work and in their own personal lives.”

Like Cater, Al-Khatib pinned the root of the disparity partially on the absence of visible women in the field. She explained that though there are not very many women in the specialty, she hoped the culture would improve and encourage more women to go into cardiology as a result of having more female role models and feeling more supported by male colleagues. 

“At Duke in cardiology, things are getting better,” Al-Khatib said, echoing Cater’s sentiments. “We have a good number of women in faculty. That’s great, because when young women see have those successful role models, it’s good motivation.”

Ultimately, for Cater, the goal is to eliminate the disparity she has experienced firsthand.

“I just hope the study continues to push the conversation on gender in radiology,” Cater said. “I hope others continue to explore the reasons behind the disparity, and I hope they see it as a problem we can overcome as a community.”