The Doctors Are In: Anatomy of NWU’s future physicians

Balance and imbalance

There’s a balance to the Biology Department’s approach that not every university can replicate: warm encouragement and cool frankness in the right doses. “You can do this,” paired with, “You fell short today. Now what are you going to do about it?”

While the 350 names in Dappen’s binder speak to the Biology Department’s success in balancing support and accountability, those names also reveal an imbalance. The number of men on that list roughly doubles the number of women. Only a third of the NWU biology majors who’ve become physicians in the last 40 years are female.

Perhaps the list’s gender balance was off because of a 30-year-old imbalance that has since righted itself. Haven’t things since shifted toward equilibrium?

“No,” Dappen said with some sadness. “It’s going the other way.”

He said many women in the Biology Department step up to the brink of medical school, see its costs in money, time and energy, and reevaluate. Many find it incompatible with their desire to have a family. “And then they often go for a physician assistant or some other avenue.”

He made clear he finds nothing wrong with an individual choosing to become a PA or nurse or any other position in the field. The quality of care they provide is inarguably high. But Dappen believed the underrepresentation of women among physicians creates problems, or rather, fails to fix existing ones.

“We need more women as physicians because it is the female doctor who is going to change some of these old habits… like putting [residents] in the ER for 24 hours or 36 hours [straight].” Dappen linked habits like these more to macho initiation rituals than to proper medicine. “You can’t perform good medicine if you do that.”