Deonza Thymes still remembers the day she approached her high-school counselor for academic advice on becoming a doctor.
The then-teenager from Los Angeles was already planning to apply to UCLA for her undergraduate degree, but the counselor had a less inspiring idea.
“She told me I should apply to junior college. I thought that was the most bizarre thing ever, being that I had good grades, I was senior class president… and involved in all these things,” recalled Thymes, who is African-American. “Luckily I did not listen to her and I applied to UCLA and I got in. But it’s a theme, being discouraged pretty much throughout the path” to becoming a doctor.
Today, Thymes is an emergency medicine physician working at several hospitals in California and out of state. She’s also vice-president of Artemis Medical Society, a mentoring and advocacy group for women physicians of color. Yet the hostilities she faced pursing a medical career have not gone away, she said. In fact, a new report by her organization produced in collaboration with the Oakland-based Greenlining Institute concludes that discrimination and lack of support plague minority women entering the medical field.
The report is based on interviews with 20 female physicians of color, more than half of them from California. Backgrounds represented include African-American, Latina, Asian, Middle Eastern and multiracial. Although the sample is small, lead author Anthony Galace with the Greenlining Institute said it provides a snapshot of common barriers women of color face along the pipeline to becoming physicians. Many interviewees confronted the double whammy of both racism and sexism at high school, medical school and during their residencies, he said.
Eight of the women interviewed said high school and college counselors actively discouraged them from pursuing a career in medicine. Some interviewees said they were told medical school would be too difficult for them, while others said they were pressured to start a family.
Lack of role models and mentorship was another huge problem for the women. More than half said they questioned their own prospects of succeeding as physicians because they had never met a doctor who looked like them.
“That speaks to just the sheer absence of women physicians of color that can help young women matriculate into the pipeline,” Galace said. Also: “it was really jarring to hear about some of the overt forms of misogyny and racism that some of these women physicians experienced, and it’s something that I think the medical sector – whether it be hospitals, medical schools, residency programs and so on – need to be more responsive too.”
Women of color make up just 12 percent of active medical doctors in the United States, according to the report. With the exception of African Americans, male doctors also outnumber female doctors among minority groups. Meanwhile, the U.S. population is becoming increasingly diverse, with women of color expected to outnumber Caucasian women by 2050. The medical field needs to become more diverse, too, to better serve this growing demographic, Galace argued.
C. Freeman, a geriatric psychiatrist at the historically black Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in south Los Angeles was not involved in the study, but said she wasn’t at all surprised by its findings.
“Reading the report is like reading my life,” she said. It’s “consistent with pretty much any experience that a woman of color who’s a physician may have had somewhere in their training.”
Freeman said academic institutions that train doctors need to embrace diversity and require mandatory cultural sensitivity training for faculty, as well as a safe mechanism for women to report discrimination.
“It is our diversity that is our strength,” Freeman said. “If everybody thinks the same, looks the same, talks the same, there’s nothing particularly innovative about that, nothing particularly creative…. it is through the sharing of ideas that you can grow.”