Women in Radiology Making “Herstory”

Barbara Hamilton, M.D., Chief of Interventional Radiology, Desert Regional Medical Center; Radiology Partners Associate

Telling "herstory" -- sharing women's role in radiology and the differences they have made to the field -- is critical to not only showcasing the diversity already existing in the field, but to also opening the door to other women and under-represented minorities who can contribute to the field.

When I think of Women’s History Month, I am almost pained by my lack of historical knowledge. The truth is, I never found it an engaging subject, since women’s part in history was often overlooked or underemphasized in school.

I recall memorizing historic conflicts and the generals who fought them, wondering where the women were in that period. Surely women contributed throughout history, yet we know just a select few of their names. And, do their names grace street signs, buildings, or institutions the way men’s do? Not often. This kind of history speaks loudly in its omission of women. I wonder about the hidden legacy of women, and I like to consider the way women are making history right now.

Alongside our “his-story” we need to learn “her-story.” We all know about Marie Curie, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, but did you know she was one of just two people to ever win the award in two different fields? Have you heard of Metrodora, a female physician in Ancient Greece, who wrote the first medical text known to be written by a woman? How about Gerty Cori, Virginia Apgar, or Rosalind Franklin? Did you know it was a woman who discovered that HIV causes AIDS? These discoveries are just the tip of the iceberg in a world where women’s accomplishments have been historically hard-won, overshadowed, even stolen at times.

Women continue to break new ground. As of 2019, women make up the majority of students in U.S. medical schools. And, while some implicit biases against women and underrepresented minorities (URM) are slowly being addressed, we have a long road to dismantling them and achieving equity. In academic medicine, for example, women hold only about one quarter of professorships, and as you go up in rank from instructor to assistant professor, and associate professor to full professor, the proportion of women declines.

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Despite the fact that it’s illegal, there remains an unexplained pay gap that falls along the lines of gender and race. There’s no better time to reflect on these stark facts than during Women’s History Month. And women aren’t the only ones responsible for pushing us in the direction of equity: women and men alike can help to make this a reality.

Embracing Diverse Perspectives

The need for “herstory” in radiology couldn’t be more salient, given the persistent gender gap in both diagnostic and interventional radiology. If we don’t recognize this issue and take meaningful steps to welcome women into our male-dominated sphere, we will not benefit from the entirety of the talent pool.

Role models are key in this regard, as many approaching male-dominated fields like ours wonder what life would look like for them, should they enter the field. We, as radiologists, can showcase the various forms a radiologist can take, which are as diverse as the sub-specialties we practice in. As a group, we no longer reflect the stereotypical gray-haired male, puffing a cigar in the corner of the hospital basement. We are an increasingly diverse and nimble group of individuals with specialized image-based skills. And, as a group, we are stronger for it.

It wasn’t always so easy for me to feel this optimistic. There were times I doubted I belonged in this field, due to the gendered stereotypes that still persist. I’ve heard naysayers tell me and others not to pursue fields like mine for various reasons, ranging from gender to stature and background. But I’ve also been bolstered by countless mentors and sponsors, who assured me I could thrive in radiology.

The fact is, there are countless ways we can support women entering our field. We can attract and retain a broad spectrum of talent when we encourage and welcome it, even in small ways. As a leader, I’ve made it my mission to be as visible as possible, so other women can see what is possible for them, too. In interventional radiology, we see women leading and innovating at the pinnacle of the field, yet female representation still lags under 10 percent among practicing IRs. Volunteering with the Society for Interventional Radiology (SIR) has been one way to foster relationships and mastermind solutions to some of the deeply rooted inequities in our specialty and health systems. Our work within our local and national societies can help make strides toward diversity and equity in our field.

Mentorship & Sponsorship

Personal relationships can also be incredibly impactful. My first mentor in radiology is someone I still emulate today. Dr. Judith Amorosa, a chest radiologist and vice-chair for faculty development and academic affairs at the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, was instrumental in attracting me to the field of radiology. In a medical school lecture, she explained what radiologists do, introducing me to the magic of medical imaging and visuospatial reasoning. Her talk gripped me from the start. Beyond the intellectual stimulation she modeled, Dr. Amorosa showed me what it could look like to be a successful woman in medicine. She continues to inspire me more than a decade later.

Following that introduction to radiology, I’ve been supported and encouraged by countless radiologists and interventional radiologists, like Drs. Damian Dupuy, Mike Beland, Ethan Prince, Sun Ahn, Laura Findeiss, and Maureen Kohi, just to name a few. I’m blown away by the good we can do in this field, and the positive impact we can have on one another.

Fostering talent can be surprisingly easy with the advent of technology and social media. Though the COVID-19 pandemic brought about epidemic levels of isolation from our support systems, it also made mentors more widely available. Online, students, trainees, and those at all levels of their career could look to online platforms to connect with others in a new way. Whether through virtual shadowing opportunities or in online forums, being visible and available has been a boon for peers and colleagues alike. We now have the capability to support the future of our field from the comfort of our own homes.

Despite the constraints we all have in time and energy, I encourage you to be visible, approachable, and generous to those in the talent pipeline. Even a small gesture can help to ignite an illustrious career. In this way, mentorship and sponsorship are truly rewarding.

Male Allies: What Can They Do?

As an advocate for women in male-dominated fields, I’m often asked how men can serve as allies to their female colleagues. I recommend learning about implicit bias, even if you don’t think you harbor any. We all have biases to uncover and dismantle, and it takes a life-long learner to do so.

Men can help to break up the boys’ club in specialties like ours. You don’t have to cancel all of your golf outings, but consider incorporating more inclusive activities, as well. And, finally, decide to be part of the solution. If you don’t make this intentional decision, you’re unlikely to speak up or take a risk when it’s truly needed.

Lastly, as we reflect on Women’s History Month, let’s look to those we have left behind in medicine and the STEM fields. We must all advocate for those who are still marginalized in our world, from our fellow healthcare workers to the patients we serve. I want our herstory to reflect a time in which women helped to catalyze change for underrepresented groups in radiology and beyond.

Barbara Hamilton, M.D., is chief of interventional radiology at Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs, Calif., and an associate within Radiology Partners. She is Founder and Editor of the popular TiredSuperheroine blog & the author of “Save Lives, Enjoy Your Own: Finding Your Place in Medicine.”