May 22, 2009

Rowley: Work-life balance difficult for women in medicine

Professor Janet Rowley (B.A. ‘44, B.S. ‘46, M.D. ‘48), a pioneer in leukemia research and one of three women in her medical school class of 65 students, spoke on the challenges women face when entering the medical field, largely drawing on her own experiences.

For years, Rowley balanced part-time work and home life, while researching at health clinics three days a week and taking care of her four children on her days off.

“I actually thought I had it made,” she said, explaining that her supervisors generally left her alone.

However, Rowley's biggest career achievement came in the early 1970s, when she discovered the translocation of genes in leukemia patients. Translocations are mutations of genetic material where parts of DNA are moved from one chromosome to another. Up until that point, physicians largely disregarded the role that genetic damage can play in the causation of disease. Now multiple variations of leukemia are associated with translocations.

The discovery pushed Rowley towards a full-time medical career, she said. “Some success awakens the desire in you to have more success, and that means you have to give up things.” For Rowley, beginning full-time work meant less time with her children, and less time to pursue hobbies outside of science—a sacrifice, she said, that is difficult for women to make in general.

While Rowley has seen the number of women in medicine dramatically increase—in the past 30 years, the number of female physicians has increased threefold—she said a number of obstacles continue to prevent women from succeeding in the medical field.

Although women outnumber men in medical school, she said, at some point they decide to drop out of the field, creating a large gender gap in actual practice. Partly, she said, this phenomenon isn’t really understood, and needs to be studied further. But it also has to do with the fact that “we do a lousy job of promoting women physicians in the U.S.,” she said, adding that encouraging women to become physicians might help to close the gap between men and women in medicine.