women in medicine

Women in Medicine

Are you a woman interested in a medical career? You are not alone! The number of women in medicine has skyrocketed in recent decades. This positive trend means that women’s contributions in the field have grown exponentially, in spite of the challenges women in medicine continue to face today.

In this article, we will explore women’s progression in the medical field, from the experiences of the first women physicians to those of modern women in medicine. In addition, we will explore a number of topics regarding medical education for women, including:

  • A timeline of the role of women in medicine
  • How women’s medical education has evolved
  • An exploration of famous women in medicine and their contributions
  • Gender inequalities affecting women physicians, including salary differences and bias
  • Efforts to improve gender inequity, such as Women in Medicine Month
  • Women in medicine statistics, including the percentage of women in medical school and practicing as doctors
  • The college admissions process to receive a medical education
  • The top medical careers for women
  • Where women in medicine can get support throughout their education and careers, and more!

If you are a woman considering a career in the medical field, this article may help you feel more prepared for the journey that awaits. While full of challenges, medicine is certainly a rewarding and important career, especially for women.

A Brief History of Women in Medicine in the U.S.

women in medicine

While women have provided medical care to their communities for centuries, there is also a long legacy of excluding women from healthcare. The first medical school in the U.S. was established in 1765, however women were not allowed to enter U.S. medical schools until the late 1800s. 

Although women experienced a great amount of discrimination and bias that kept them out of medical careers, there were many important people and moments that led us to where we are today. Here is a brief timeline of important achievements and stepping stones in the history of women in medicine:

Timeline of U.S. Women in Medicine

200-400 C.E.

On the Diseases and Cures of Women is written by the Greek doctor Metrodora. It is the oldest medical text known to have been written by a woman.

12th Century

Hildegard of Bingen, a German woman who runs a convent, writes two volumes on medicine. She is regarded as one of the first women gynecologists.

16th Century

The profession of nurse midwifery, or birthing babies, is born. It was pioneered and written about by Louyse Bourgeois, who birthed babies of wealthy French families. 


Boston Female Medical College opens, the first medical school for women. The school was geared towards teaching midwifery, and at first awarded its students the title of “Doctress in Medicine.” Later, the school would expand to teach more aspects of medicine.


Two years later, Quakers in Pennsylvania founded The Female Medical College of Pennsylvania. This school was the first medical school to grant women a Doctor of Medicine degree.

1850 – 1895

20 medical schools open for women around the U.S.


The Medical Women’s National Association, the first professional association for women in medicine, opens. Its founder created the organization, now known as the American Medical Women’s Association, because she was barred from her local OB/GYN professional society. Today, the American Medical Women’s Association supports women in ascending to leadership roles within medicine.


Women join the military after the need for doctors skyrockets due to World War II. The American Medical Women’s Association was part of national advocacy efforts to give women physicians the opportunity to serve abroad in wartime.


The number of women in medicine increases exponentially after the passing of the Title IX Educational Amendment, which barred any institution that accepts federal funds from discriminating against women. Additionally, the second wave feminist movement sparks conversation about the personal and career options available to women.


Antonia Novello, M.D., becomes the first woman and first Latina to be elected U.S. Surgeon General. The Surgeon General is the foremost chief medical officer and health educator for the United States government. 


The Association of American Medical Colleges publishes a comprehensive report on the status of women in medical schools, advocating for the implementation of additional mentorship and support.

As more institutions emerged to support the careers of women in medicine, more women physicians began to practice. Up next, we will look at the history of women physicians and learn about a few famous women in medicine.

When were women first allowed to be doctors?

While women have always been influential in medicine, women were not allowed to be doctors until the mid-19th century. Here are brief profiles of some of the first women physicians in the U.S.

Elizabeth Blackwell

In 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to earn a medical degree in the U.S. Blackwell was a British woman whose family moved to the U.S. in 1832. She worked first as a teacher before pursuing a medical career after taking care of a dying friend. Her medical school experience was marked by discrimination as she was kept separate from male students and barred from labs. 

While her initial acceptance to Geneva Medical College was supposedly intended as a joke by her peers, Blackwell went on to graduate top of her class. In her career, Blackwell championed preventative care and personal hygiene to reduce infections in hospitals. She later opened a clinic for poor women, the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, and a medical college. She ended her career as a professor and wrote an autobiography titled Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women.

Rebecca Lee Crumpler

In 1864, Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first Black woman to earn a medical degree in the U.S. Born in Delaware, she admired an aunt who was always taking care of sick people in their community. Determined to have her own medical career, Crumpler became a nurse before later applying to the New England Female Medical College.

Afterwards, she practiced medicine in Boston before moving to Richmond, Virginia after the Civil War. She cared for many freed slaves who would have otherwise had little access to medical care. In 1883, she published the Book of Medical Discourses, one of the first medical texts written by an African American.

Susan LaFlesche Picotte

In 1889, Susan LaFlesche Picotte became the first indigenous woman to earn a medical degree in the U.S. Picotte was born on the Omaha reservation in Nebraska in 1865. Her inspiration for becoming a doctor was watching an indigenous woman pass away after a white doctor refused to care for her.

Picotte was determined to learn skills that would help her better serve people on her reservation. She eventually enrolled in the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania and was the first person to receive federal aid to pursue professional education. Later in her career, she later returned to Nebraska and opened a hospital that honors her memory as a museum today.

As we can see, these famous women in medicine were called to service by their dedication to helping others and their life experiences witnessing discrimination. Discrimination also hindered these women’s progression in the medical field, but each found ways to overcome challenges and revolutionize the field for women who came after them.

Next, we will explore the institutional shift from having women-only medical colleges to co-educational medical schools.

From Women-Only to Co-Educational Medical Schools

women in medicine

A major hindrance to women’s progression in the medical field was the lack of educational opportunities available to them. While medical schools had already been established in the U.S. to educate male doctors, these schools did not allow women to apply.

To counteract this, formalized medical education began in women-only medical colleges. Overtime, many women-only medical schools merged with established medical schools and became co-educational, meaning they admitted both men and women. However, more than 100 years would pass between the founding of the first women-only medical school and all medical schools becoming co-educational.

Here is a timeline of the transition from women-only to co-educational medical schools:

Timeline of Transition from Women-Only to Co-Ed Med Schools


The first U.S. medical school for women opens. Originally called Boston Female Medical College, the school later expanded and became known as the New England Female Medical College.

1850 – 1895

During this period, 19 medical colleges for women were established. By 1910, as some all-male medical colleges started admitting women, only 2 would remain.

1870s – 1880s

Medical schools start becoming co-educational. In 1870, the University of Michigan Department of Surgery changed its college admissions process and admitted its first female student, Emma Sanford.


97 out of 160 existing medical schools (61%) are co-educational.


64 out of 85 existing medical schools (75%) are co-educational.


Only 5 medical schools still do not accept women. These schools are Harvard, Georgetown, St. Louis University, Dartmouth, and Jefferson Medical College.


The last all-male medical school, Jefferson Medical College, becomes co-educational.

While the number of medical schools for women decreased as more women were accepted into previously all-male medical schools, some also evolved to become co-educational institutions as well. For example, the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania opened in 1850, but did not begin admitting men until 1970 when it became the Medical College of Pennsylvania. It is now known as MCP Hahnemann University and is operated by Drexel University. Additionally, the Boston Female Medical College, the first medical school for women, is now known as the Boston University School of Medicine. 

As we can tell, the landscape of medical education and, consequently, the role of women in medicine shifted greatly for women throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries. Coming up, we will explore the important contributions that female medical pioneers have made in the U.S.

Important Contributions by Women in Medicine

Despite the numerous challenges women in medicine have faced, many female medical pioneers have made important contributions to the field. Let’s explore some of the innovations and discoveries made by famous women in medicine:

Key Medical Contributions by Women

  • The one-handed medical syringe was invented by Letitia Mumford Geer in 1899.
  • Alice Catherine Evans discovered bacteria in raw milk that caused infection. Without her discovery, the process of pasteurizing milk would not have been born, and many more humans would have become ill or died from infections.
  • Dr. Hattie Alexander developed the first treatment for influenza meningitis, a disease that affected children. In 1964, she also became head of the American Pediatrics Society. She was one of the first women to head a national medical association.
  • The Apgar Score, a method used to determine newborn infant health, was invented by Dr. Virginia Apgar. The method drastically reduced infant mortality.
  • Dr. Marilyn Hughes Gaston led research that focused on using penicillin to reduce deadly sepsis infections. She also became the first African American woman to head a public health service bureau and advocated for many marginalized communities.  
  • Dr. Flossie Wong-Staal was the first researcher to clone the HIV virus, leading to its identification as the cause for AIDS. Her research paved the way for blood tests to identify HIV infections.

Collectively, these female medical pioneers and other famous women in medicine have saved thousands, if not millions, of lives thanks to their contributions.

Women in Medicine Today

women in medicine

Up until now, we have focused our discussion on the history of women in medicine. Moving forward, we will shift towards exploring the role of women in medicine today. To do so, we will take a close look at women in medicine statistics.

Women’s progression in the medical field has led to us having more women physicians and, consequently, female medical students. Here are some key women in medicine statistics regarding the rising trends of women physicians:

Statistics about Women in Medicine

  1. In 1950, 6% of U.S. physicians were women. 
  2. By 2007, 28.3% of U.S. physicians were women.
  3. By 2019, 36% of U.S. physicians were women. 

Overtime, we can see women physicians are quickly catching up to their male counterparts in numbers. However, these percentages do not tell the story of which specialties women are most likely to pursue. Later on, we’ll discuss top medical careers for women and see which specialties have the highest concentration of women physicians (and which continue to be male-dominated). 

Women in Medicine Month

Currently, there’s also a whole month dedicated to supporting women physicians: Women in Medicine Month! Women in Medicine Month is in September and is spearheaded by the AMA Women Physicians Section.

Each September, the WPS organizes events to celebrate Women in Medicine Month. During Women in Medicine Month, there are events to honor women physicians who have dedicated themselves to advancing the careers of other women in medicine, as well as educational content and opportunities to celebrate each other.

The AMA recognizes female medical pioneers through their Inspiration Awards and creates opportunities to further the conversation about gender disparities in medicine. Additionally, the nonprofit called Women in Medicine holds an annual conference each year during Women in Medicine Month.

A Note on Intersectionality

While this article focuses on the experiences of all women in medicine, the reality is that an intersectional approach sheds even greater light on inequalities. An intersectional approach refers to looking at a combination of identities by which a woman may be marginalized, such as being a woman of color or an LGBTQ+ woman.

The Student National Medical Association is one example of an organization geared towards supporting underrepresented students in gaining a medical education. Through the Student National Medical Association’s programs, medical students of color can gain access to shadowing opportunities, mentorship, and networking with other doctors in their specialties. There are chapters of the Student National Medical Association in every region of the U.S.

While you may think the percentage of women medical students should align with the percentage of women physicians, you may be surprised to find this is not the case. To understand why, let’s look at the percentage of women in medical school today.

What is the percentage of women in medical school?

One of the most promising women in medicine statistics is the current number of women in medical schools. Indeed, 2019 was the first year where more women enrolled in medical school than men (50.5% were women). As of 2023, women made up 55.4% of all first year medical school students. Currently, of all medical school students, 54.6% are women.

While these statistics are promising, there is an obvious discrepancy between the percentage of women medical school students and women physicians. This discrepancy reflects the fact that women physicians are quitting at higher rates than men. In fact, a University of Michigan study found that 40 percent of women quit or go to part-time status within six years of completing their training. In our later discussion of careers for women in medicine, we will examine inequalities in the medical profession, including specific factors such as lack of sufficient parental leave, burnout, and gender pay gaps.

Despite the many challenges women may face in their careers, there are many opportunities and pathways to get women to medical school. In the next section, we’lI discuss three different paths students might take to get to medical school and how the college admissions process differs for each.

Pathways To M.D.

women in medicine

Women interested in attending medical school will need to navigate the complexities of the college admissions process. However, not everyone takes the same steps to enroll in medical school. In fact, there are a number of different pathways to consider when it comes to pursuing a medical degree. 

Pre-Med Undergraduate → Medical School

The most traditional path for women physicians is to complete their undergraduate degree and then go to medical school. Most women in medicine will study pre-med in college. Pre-med isn’t a major, but is a combination of classes you take so that you’re prepared to take the MCAT and enter medical school.

Sometimes, for women in medicine or queer people who want to study medicine, you may be only one of a few students in your classes that aren’t men. But that’s why it’s important to create community with each other, and take advantage of resources that support women in medicine, like the Student National Medical Association or the American Medical Women’s Association! 

Most undergraduate students will start the process of applying to medical school in the spring of their Junior year. That means juggling coursework at the same time as an involved application process.

Undergraduate → Special Master’s Programs → Medical School

Another path that some women physicians take is to do a special master’s program between undergrad and med school. For some students, they don’t realize that they want to pursue a medical career until it’s too late to fulfill the pre-med requirements. Or maybe they just had another passion they wanted to study in college, and decided to enter medicine later on in life. 

For these women in medicine, they might do a Post-Baccalaureate program, where you get the prerequisites that you would have gotten if you had studied for medical school while in college. You also can use this year to boost your research experience and strengthen your application as women in medicine. In this case, you will have to go through three separate application processes to three different programs.

BS/MD Program

The final path for women in medicine is to do a BS/MD program. These programs are combined undergraduate and medical school degrees. Some take a full 8 years, the same length of time that an undergraduate and then medical degree would take, and some are accelerated. It all depends on what you’re looking for from your pathway to medical school.

When you are accepted into a BS/MD program, you are being offered a conditional acceptance to medical school. That means you only have to go through the college admissions process once, so long as you meet their requirements for matriculation to your intended medical school. These programs are selective and specific, so be sure to take advantage of BS/MD-specific resources for your college admissions process.

If you’re unsure which of these pathways would be the right choice for you, don’t worry—we have lots of resources to help you decide! We also offer free college essay examples to help you shape your path towards a medical degree.

Scholarships for Women in Medicine

women in medicine

Like other professional schools, medical schools come with significant costs. It’s very common for people, including women physicians, to take out loans in order to attend medical school. On average, medical school costs around $235,000. Public schools tend to cost around $100,000 less, especially if you attend an in-state school. 

These numbers can be nerve wracking. However, there are some scholarships that are specifically for women in medicine that you can apply to in order to offset some of these costs. These scholarships are designed to help women’s progression in the medical field, and help create the next generation of female medical pioneers. 

The American Medical Women’s Association (AMWA) has four scholarships of $1,000 each that it awards to women who are already in medical school. $1,000 might not seem like much, but anything to pay those loans as fast as possible is a plus! 

For women in medicine who are interested in working with the queer community, apply for the WIM leadership scholarship. These scholarships award up to $5,000, and are available for students attending allopathic, osteopathic, or naturopathic medical schools in the United States or Canada. 

These scholarships from Wellesley College are available to all women in medicine, regardless of whether they attended Wellesley! And, they award more money than many others: The M.A. Cartland Shackford Medical Fellowship offers up to $12,000. 

For more scholarships for women in medicine, check out this list by Brown’s medical school, and these scholarships form the AMA

Exploring Careers in Medicine

women in medicine

Typically, after completing med school, most women in medicine who want to become physicians will enter residency programs. It’s important to note that not all M.D.s go on to complete residency and become physicians, and not all careers in medicine require students to attend med school. In fact, there’s a variety of careers that women in medicine can pursue, including patient care, research, and teaching. 

Patient care

Patient care is what people think of when they imagine becoming a doctor: seeing patients day to day and treating them for their illnesses. Some physicians who practice patient care are surgeons, others are pediatricians or specialists. In medical school, you’ll explore different specialties to see what type you may be interested in pursuing. Different specialties have different requirements and lead to different lifestyles, so be sure to take both your needs and interests into consideration when determining which specialty is right for you.


Another career for women physicians is research. In order to practice research, you don’t necessarily have to complete a residency, but many jobs will be looking for physicians who have this experience. Research areas include laboratory science, clinical research, or health services research. If you want to pursue research after graduating from medical school, it’s important to take advantage of research opportunities while in school by working with a lab or doing summer research internships. 


Many medical school graduates also go on to pursue teaching. With a medical degree, you can teach other medical students, or even undergraduates in pre-med classes. While you may not be focused on teaching at first, many women physicians will pursue a combination of these paths over the course of their careers. 

If you’re not sure that you want to commit to a full M.D., many women in medicine also choose to pursue other pathways to healing like nursing or become a physician’s assistant—which are actually the top two ranked health care jobs by U.S. News. Many female medical pioneers and famous women in medicine started out as nurses, because in the past, nursing was one of the only medical careers that was open to women. Now, thanks to women’s progression in the medical field, as women in medicine, you have more choices for which medical education path is right for you.

Top Medical Careers for Women

So which pathways for women physicians are the top medical careers for women? To answer this question, let’s look to the specialities with the highest percentage of women physicians. Here’s a breakdown of the top medical careers for women, based on women in medicine statistics as reported by AAMC.

Top Medical Careers for Women

1. Pediatrics

Pediatrics is the branch of medicine that works with children, infants, and adolescents. When you were a kid, the doctor that you went to see was a pediatrician. Within pediatrics, women physicians can also specialize to deal with more narrow issues facing children and adolescents.

2. Obstetrics and Gynecology

Obstetrics and Gynecology is the care of people who are pregnant or giving birth, and of reproductive care for women. OBGYNs perform all sorts of care related to these fields, from delivering babies, to consulting about infertility or hormone treatments, to pap smears. If you’re passionate about access to reproductive health, this could be a career where you’ll find a community of other women physicians. 

3. Pediatric Hematology/Oncology

This specialty deals with childhood cancer and blood disorders. Hematology refers to the blood disorders, and oncology is the study and treatment of cancers. As a pediatric hematologist/oncologist, you will be changing and saving the lives of children. To do this job effectively, you’ll need to be prepared to communicate with both children and their families about their medical care.

4. Geriatric Medicine

If you decide to pursue geriatric medicine, you’ll be caring for older adults. Just like pediatricians care for children, older adults need specialized care as well—and that’s where geriatric medicine practitioners come in. 

5. Child and Adolescent Psychiatry

If you want to work with children but don’t necessarily want to be a physician, many women in this scenario choose to pursue child and adolescent psychiatry. This field works with children and teens to understand and treat mental and behavioral disorders. You may be responsible for administering treatment such as psychotherapy or medication while acting as a responsible advocate for the child’s health and well-being.

Women physicians in male-dominated specialties

Based on these women in medicine statistics, we might notice a pattern regarding the role of women in medicine being focused on patient care for women, children, and the elderly. This is especially true when compared with the top male-dominated medical specialties: Orthopedic Surgery, Sports Medicine, and Interventional Cardiology. 

If these divides on the gender role of women in medicine are starting to feel a bit stereotypical to you—bone breaking and sports for men, and children and reproductive health for women—you’re not alone. Remember, just because these are the specialties with the highest percentage of women doesn’t mean that they’re the only options for you. 

We call them the “top medical careers for women,” but we’re just going off of the women in medicine statistics. The best specialty for you doesn’t have to be the one with the highest women in medicine statistics, it just needs to be one where you feel called and comfortable. 

Average Salary for Women in Medicine

The average salary for women in medicine is $239,000 a year—not bad when you’re trying to pay off those medical school loans. However, this still trails mens’ salaries: the average salary for men is $286,000, and the difference is even greater when you factor in specialists’ salaries, which tend to be higher for both genders but are even higher for men. 

One study found that over a simulated 40-year career, male physicians make around 8 million dollars, where women physicians only make 6 million. That’s an enormous difference—nearly 25%. Even though salaries for women physicians are quite high, these disparities still exist within the field. 

These pay gap differences can start as early as your first job. One study found that nearly all women in academic medicine start out with lower salaries than their male counterparts. Furthermore, they found these differences can lead to disparities in your income and net worth for up to a decade. 

This may seem disillusioning, but don’t let this pay gap discourage you from pursuing a medical education. The gender pay gap exists across all careers, and women are still underrepresented in the medical field. We need more female medical pioneers to help women’s progression in the medical field and fight for equal treatment for women physicians. 

Luckily, there are some organizations dedicated to helping women in medicine begin and sustain successful careers.

Organizations Supporting Women in Medicine

There are many organizations whose role is to support women’s progression in the medical field. Let’s learn a bit more about some of these organizations:

Organizations Supporting Women in Medicine

American Medical Women’s Association

AMWA was founded in 1915 and supports women physicians at every level: local, state, and national. AMWA offers mentoring for leadership and advocacy, and also supports women physicians’ wellbeing and health. You can become an AMWA member as a pre-med student, medical school student, or a physician. 

Women in Medicine

WIM is a nonprofit aiming to close the gender gap in healthcare and eliminating the disparity between women physicians and male physicians. WIM hosts a summit every year, where women in medicine can come together to learn about skills development, advocacy, and how to grow as a woman professional in the field.

AAMC Group on Women in Medicine and Science

This organization is part of the American Association of Medical Colleges. This group is free to join and is a collection of faculty and administrators at medical schools that aim to support the careers and development of women physicians. GWIMS provides toolkits, data, and webinars on topics that matter to women pursuing a medical education or in the academic medical field. 

Women as One

This organization promotes gender equality in medicine with grants and professional support networks. Through professional development aid and research, Women as One seeks to eliminate barriers for women in medicine.

While these organizations are great, these aren’t even the tip of the iceberg. There are many more organizations to support women in medicine, especially on the state or local level or within your educational institution. There are also groups with a more specialized focus, like the National Society of Black Women in Medicine. Groups like the Student National Medical Association are also available for all underrepresented minorities in the medical field, including women. 

Challenges Facing Women in Medicine

women in medicine

Despite representing a little over half of medical school students, women in medicine continue to face challenges in the field. First, even though they represent over half of med school students, women are only 47.9% of medical school graduates—and only 45.6% of residents. 

As underrepresented minorities in their field, women also face gender bias. This could be anything from sexual or gender-based harassment, or getting passed up for promotions due to their gender. Women represent fewer tenured faculty in academic medicine, partially due to how many more women work part-time than men. Even though more women than men pursue academic medicine, the number of them who advance to senior positions is much lower than the number of men. 

There is also salary inequity for women in the medical field. As we discussed above, one study found that women make, on average, nearly 25% less money than male physicians do over the course of a 40-year career. It also can be isolating to be a woman in medicine, especially if you pursue a male-dominated specialty. 

Young women physicians may also feel unsupported in certain institutions and medical programs by a lack of mentors and role models. That’s why support groups and recognition like women in medicine month are important to supplement mentorship and skill-building that women in medicine may otherwise lose out on. Remember, if you feel discouraged, there are so many famous women in medicine and female medical pioneers that came before you who are rooting for your success. 

Women in Medicine – Final Thoughts

The role of women in medicine is important for the advancement of healthcare as a profession, as women are an essential part of serving patient needs and conducting groundbreaking research. While the path for women in medicine has been a challenging one, it’s getting better with every new class of women physicians ready to make a difference.

Women in medicine have come a long way, and today women who want to pursue a medical education have a multitude of pathways open to them. And, finding success in this challenging field is made easier by women-led community and support networks. For support throughout your medical career, be sure to look to organizations like the Student National Medical Association and the American Medical Women’s Association. 

If you want to be the next in the long line of famous women in medicine but you’re still in high school, the first step is acing the college admissions process. For future doctors, you’ll want to stress your career goals during the college admissions process, and prioritize applications to schools with strong research programs or pre-med opportunities.

Despite the challenges you may face, from college applications to building your career, remember you don’t have to go through them alone. CollegeAdvisor is here to support you throughout the college admissions process with resources like free college essay examples, college admissions process counseling, webinars, articles, and one-on-one coaching.

women in medicine

This article was written by advisors, Courtney Ng and Rachel Kahn. Looking for more admissions support? Click here to schedule a free meeting with one of our Admissions Specialists. During your meeting, our team will discuss your profile and help you find targeted ways to increase your admissions odds at top schools. We’ll also answer any questions and discuss how CollegeAdvisor.com can support you in the college application process.