One of my favorite interviews of all time was Dr. Janet Rowley. Her research helped identify cancer as a genetic disease and led to the creation of Gleevec, a life-saving therapy that changed how leukemia is treated.
We met in 2009 when she received a Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama, which came a decade after President Bill Clinton presented her with the National Medal of Science. She was quiet and unassuming but the silver bun at the top of her head trembled as she spoke of her husband, a pathologist, and her four boys.
Rowley told me her first big discovery happened at her kitchen table. Her children played with “paper dolls,” which were actually photographs of chromosomes taken under a microscope.
For 20 years, Rowley worked part time so she could raise those boys, demanding wages that would cover the cost of good child care. She didn’t take up full-time research until her youngest was 12 years old. Even then, she rushed home to make sure her children didn’t feel they came second to her research or her battles to be taken seriously by her peers.
Her 2013 obituary in the New York Times quoted this incredible woman as saying that people thought she was too humble. “But looking down a microscope at banded chromosomes is not rocket science,” she once said.
Perhaps that was to her detriment.
Rowley, with her two heavy medals and estimates of hundreds of thousands of lives saved, is a great example of how some Women sell themselves short. She’s also a shining example of how to balance life and work.
As a mother to a toddler now, I admire Rowley’s progressiveness and drive even more. But I’m sure that she, like me, often felt neither of her passions received full attention.
A few months before Rowley’s death, the Atlantic published a widely read article that stated women couldn’t have it all. Those who were both mothers and top professionals are superhuman, wrote Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former State Department official who left her job to spend more time at home.
She argued that only through federal laws that provided paid leave and universal child care could women attain positions of influence. Five years later, we know women are afraid to have children because they lack these options.
This week, hundreds of executives will gather in Nashville at Modern Healthcare’s Women Leaders in Healthcare Conference. We’ll celebrate the accomplishments of an impressive group of women, but also try to chip away at the ongoing challenges in the industry.
Although it’s not on the agenda, the presentations will remind us how difficult it is to be a mother in healthcare. Female Physicians take as little as five weeks maternity leave, if at all, and most of it comes through sick time or disability coverage.
That means women return to work perhaps still suffering from postpartum depression, a likelihood since it affects 1 in 7 mothers. Babies are handed off to caregivers despite pediatricians’ warnings that frequent skin-to-skin contact is vital during those early months.
About half of female residents have their first babies during those times of grueling 80-hour workweeks. The ones who don’t quit can go on to specialties that add three to seven more years of training. Perhaps that’s why women favor lower-paid specialties with shorter residency periods.
And that leads to another entrenched issue: the income gap between male and female physicians. In New York alone, the gap doubled from 2010 to 2016.
Our safety and quality reporter, Maria Castellucci, has dug into the reasons why few women go into surgery, a profession that nets twice the salary of the average physician.
It’s important that women increase those numbers, but it’s also crucial for the decisionmakers reading this column to do their part by making wages more transparent and providing more flexible work arrangements. They’ll see happier, healthier employees.
Maybe Rowley was superwoman. Maybe Slaughter was right. One thing’s for sure, we need to continue fighting for the chance to have it all.
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