Though some policy wonks gripe that fewer male doctors translates into fewer patient hours-men are more likely to be workaholics and less likely to take breaks for children-the public reaction to having more female physicians has been largely positive, if not downright enthusiastic. Women are perceived as better listeners and more empathic. Indeed, the public has come to expect a woman's touch. "The guys face discrimination from the patients," says Perle Feldman. "A lot of patients balk at even talking to a male doctor, won't let him do a pap test."
They may soon find the sheer prospect of a male doctor to be a novelty. When my young son was greeted by the first male pediatrician he'd ever seen, there was an urgent stage whisper betraying his distrust. "Mom! Can men be real doctors?"
They can, apparently. But it's not just the patient experience that is changing, judging by my eavesdropping on a recent Canadian Women's Health Network webinar for female family doctors. "The work environment is going to have to change," says Janet Dollin, one of the webinar's presenters. More female doctors means that part-time options, job-sharing, easier re-entry after a hiatus, and promotions on the basis of merit-not punishing hours-will soon be the talking points of physicians in demand. Women, on average, are less willing to burn themselves out by age 40. This is a mighty good thing, as, based on current forecasts, most of them will be living for at least another 45 years.
Almost any profession that focuses on interaction, or on providing a human service, is now dominated by women. Pharmacy, education, government service, as well as administrative, supervisory and professional positions in business and finance, are all areas that are at least 70% female, according to Statistics Canada figures for 2009. And these trends hold in most industrialized nations. When it comes to occupations that focus on people, on communicating and, increasingly, on administration, management and advocacy, women rule. To wit, the proportion of female law students has increased by 800% since the 1970s, one of the most dramatic occupational shifts of the late 20th century.
The way law is practised hasn't changed much, though. On the contrary, the demands on lawyers have ballooned in recent decades, leaving younger women with the impression that the legal profession is thumbing its nose at its changing demographics. The brutal time demands in private practice, combined with women's commonly voiced ambition to do work that makes a difference-that has a social purpose-has created a segregated profession. The lion's share of female lawyers who stay in the profession veer toward more socially oriented (but also less lucrative) positions in the non-profit sector-in government, the judiciary or universities-while the majority of men remain in law firms or industry, where they climb the corporate ladder.
This meaning-versus-money gender split becomes more exaggerated as careers progress, leaving just a handful of women to choose from for top leadership positions on Bay Street. Meanwhile, there's the often unvoiced suspicion that the "feminization" of a profession is a sign it's being downgraded in the public eye. After all, if "male" is the desirable standard, and more men choose a specialty-such as a career in nuclear medicine, urology or systems engineering-it must have more cachet than what women tend to choose, such as family medicine, pediatrics or pharmacy, right? That's just one question. The more basic one remains: Who's paying attention to the shifting proportions of men and women in the professional world, and should gender even matter?
Decision makers in business and the professions should be sitting up and taking notice, if only because the survey data are clear that the majority of women working in formerly male fields have different interests and priorities than their male predecessors. If we expect them to act like men in drag, we're in for some surprises.