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A Woman in Medicine

by Stacey Donlan, M.D.


lthough women physicians have come a long way in establishing themselves as leaders in their profession, our journey remains with much more to achieve. While women account for 53 percent of the nation’s medical school enrollees, in 2019 women physicians comprised only 36 percent of the workforce. In terms of leadership roles, women hold only 18 percent of board chair positions and 15 percent of CEO roles. More telling is that even at the CEO level, there is still an annual gender wage gap of $132,652. This bias, I believe, stems not only from inside the profession, where systems are not in place to meet the different needs of women, but also from patients, who are used to male doctors. We ourselves may also not have the confidence to carve our own path. My experiences, while challenging, have led me to become more self-reliant and self-assured so that I can be successful.

Family Values

I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, graduating from a college-prep high school in Los Angeles in 1983. While both my parents wanted me to go to college, the reasoning from my mother was to be sure I had a fallback degree in case I ever got divorced. When I decided to go to medical school, my mother was horrified that I might never find a spouse due to hours spent studying, while my father was incredibly proud and supportive.

I graduated with a BA in Biology with an acceptance to Georgetown University School of Medicine in 1987.

Progress in Education
Entering orientation, the dean of the medical school proudly informed us that we were the first class to comprise 50 percent men and 50 percent women at Georgetown. This was extremely progressive, as the national average of women graduates at that time was 32 percent. Little did I know this was to be a harbinger for the rest of my career. Despite the school being ready for more women in medicine, the patients were not. I ran into several patients—interestingly, all elderly women—who refused to talk to me because I was a woman. I didn’t let this deter me, as I was still tasked with caring for them and was able to problem-solve with my attending physician.
Navigating the Maternal Wall
Following medical school, I was accepted to UC Irvine’s Internal Medicine residency program. By this time, I was married to a man I met in medical school (to my mother’s delight), and in my second year of residency I became pregnant. Having a child during residency just wasn’t done in 1993. Residency is physically and mentally demanding. Back then, there were no laws governing how many hours a resident could be at the hospital. Having to stay awake overnight at the hospital every third night, the preparing of constant presentations, and the studying that still needed to be done were extremely difficult. As there was no one else in my program who was pregnant, I was alone and unsupported. The administration as well as my colleagues did not know how to support a pregnant resident. We were already working over one hundred hours per week; there was no time to help. Given that there was no such thing as a Family and Medical Leave Act back then, the expectation was to pretend you were not pregnant and just work through it. I did just that, and in real time I learned the true extent of my leadership capabilities.
Untried Waters
Maternity leave—or the lack thereof—was an interesting hurdle. These days the Family and Medical Leave Act requires 12 weeks of leave for mothers of newborns and newly adopted children. I didn’t have a choice but to use my six weeks of vacation time for childbirth and to spend time with my infant. Then I was back at work like I had never been pregnant. I accomplished my goal of showing my program that having a child during residency is within reach for anyone who has the fortitude to do it. This experience made me a stronger person and a stronger leader. I carved my own path and followed it.
Moving the needle was slow. Unfortunately, during my first job out of residency I experienced overt harassment in the workplace for the first time. Thankfully, my next job was significantly more progressive. Over a period of nine years, the clinic went from two women and four men in primary care to five women and four men. This was, to be sure, a reflection of the now-equal number of men and women graduating from medical school and residency in primary care, as well as acceptance of women in medicine. It was not until 2004 that the women physicians finally lobbied to put a maternity leave policy in place. In reflection, I at last realized that not asking for leave was a self-induced penalty. I learned I need to stand up for myself, ask for what I need, and if the policy is not in place, then lead and create one.
No More Self-Induced Penalties

In 2006, it was time for a change. I decided to leave my group and open my own practice. It has been a resounding success. I have a much more balanced panel of women and men. I make my own hours and am available to my patients when they need me. My revenue is more than twice what I was making for the clinic. Best of all, I answer to no one but myself. I make my own decisions without that small voice asking how it will affect someone else. Again, I carved my own path and followed it, confident that it would be successful.

Throughout the last 30 years I have seen a great deal of positive change for women in medicine. Not only has it become more accepted that women physicians can handle the mental and physical challenges of training, but also women have shown that we can do it. There are social media pages and organizations dedicated to supporting women in medicine. We have FMLA if we work for a large enough company. Patients, both men and women, no longer view women physicians as inferior. We are trusted and respected by our patients. I am confident this will eventually lead us to complete equality in medicine.

Stacy K.

Stacey Donlan, M.D., graduated from the University of California at Berkeley and received her Medical Doctorate from Georgetown University. In 2006, Dr. Donlan opened her own medical practice, Eastside Premier Medicine. Following the Concierge Primary Care model of medicine, Dr. Donlan focuses on patient-centered care with an emphasis on compassion, comfort, and convenience. Dr. Donlan is board-certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine and is an active member of the American Medical Association, Washington State Medical Association, and the American College of Physicians. She has received numerous awards, including making Seattle Magazine’s 2022 Top Doctors list. When she’s not at the office, Dr. Donlan enjoys spending time with her husband, their three children, and their very, very large dog!