Women in Medicine Month: Ariadne Labs Celebrates Women’s Legacy in Health Care

When Ariadne Labs senior scientist Kate Miller, PhD, MPH, contemplates the concept of Women in Medicine Month, she thinks of the connection between women and medicine in both myth and history.

“The Greek goddess Hygeia represented prevention and her sister Panacea represented cure. Isis was the goddess of medicine in ancient Egypt, where women could attend the royal medical school and practice surgery,” said Miller, who takes a lead role in the support of scientific rigor at Ariadne. 

And then Miller considers the trailblazers: “Trotula was a 10th century physician on the faculty of the most famous medical school in the European world at the time,” Miller said. “Her textbook on ob/gyn was the standard reference for hundreds of years. I think of Rebecca Lee Crumpler, the first African-American female physician in the United States; Margaret Sanger, who spent a bunch of time in jail just for the idea that people should be able to use contraception.”

Women in Medicine Month – established in 1990 by the American Medical Association – has traditionally been used as a moment to laud the progress of women in the medical and health fields. In terms of numbers, progress has been striking. The percentage of women in the physician workforce rose from 28.3% in 2007 to 36.3% in 2019, according to the AAMC’s Physician Specialty Data Reports from 2008 to 2020. That percentage is likely to rise: In 2019, 45.8% of the residents and fellows in programs accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education were female.

At Ariadne Labs, we pride ourselves on our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion for all, regardless of gender. We strive to create and foster an organizational culture in which every voice is valued and where Ariadne Labs employees and our community have a sense of belonging and shared purpose with each other and the organization. We are lucky to benefit from the leadership of women at all levels of our organization. 

“When I look back at my career path, I recall women physicians, scientists, and researchers who played key roles in the development of my vocation and my outlook on health care innovation,” said Asaf Bitton, MD, MPH, Executive Director of Ariadne Labs. “It is crucial that we continue to support women to develop their careers in the health and medical fields, not only for their sake but for the benefit of all. ” 

Ariadne Labs researchers recognize a need to retain a month for focusing on women in medicine. “It is important to recognize women in medicine for two reasons,” said Namita Seth Mohta, MD, who was recently named director of the Lab’s Serious Illness Care Program. “ One: To serve as role models and inspiration for the younger generation, regardless of gender. And two: I am a big believer in pausing to celebrate success. For me, this month is a moment to pause and intentionally celebrate the success of women in science and medicine – success in the prior generations that allow me to be where I am today, but also the success of my colleagues and peers. We need to pause and celebrate while also staying committed to relentlessly doing better.

Differences among female and male physicians remain. Percentages of females in the 47 top specialties ranged from a high of 64.3% in pediatrics to a low of 5.8% in orthopedic surgery. More troubling, women physicians face a slower promotional timeline while also being less likely to reach associate or full professorship, according to a July 2021 JAMA Internal Medicine Viewpoint article. Only 26% of full professors and 39% of associate professors in U.S. medical schools are women. Women represented 48% of assistant professors and 43% of all full-time medical school faculty. These inequities are even worse for women in underrepresented minority groups, according to the authors.

“As I reflect on September being Women in Medicine Month, I realize that, for me, my being a woman in medicine is very much tied with my identity as an Indian-American woman in medicine, and that it is really important for me to honor both the woman part and the person of color part,” said Dr. Mohta. “When I sit in executive rooms where I am often the youngest non-white female person in the room, I take how I show up in that room very seriously because not only am I representing myself and my team, I am also cognizant, for better or for worse, that I have a responsibility to show up in a way that paves the path for the younger generation.” 

What many women at Ariadne Labs emphasize is how they have benefitted by the mentorship and example of other women in their fields. 

“My life philosophy is one of ‘ubuntu,’ which roughly translates to ‘I am, because we are,’ ” said Katherine Semrau, PhD, MPH, director of Ariadne Labs’ BetterBirth Programs. “I have been supported by, mentored by, and collaborated with incredible women scientists throughout my career. I have been inspired by study participants, especially Bridget, a study participant I knew in Zambia, and many other strong, resilient women who have advanced their communities, their research, and their careers.

It’s not only female physicians who have made a difference. Women have had an impact throughout both the medical and health fields.

“Many women in medicine have impacted my career but they aren’t women you probably are familiar with,” said Amber Weiseth, DNP, RNC-OB, Interim Director of the Delivery Decisions Initiative. “These notable women are the nurses, certified nurse assistants, scrub techs, physicians, midwives, doulas and administrators I worked with as a bedside labor & delivery nurse. They are the women who taught me to be a nurse, a leader and gave of themselves to further the nursing profession. They showed me how to celebrate a birth, save a woman from hemorrhage, comfort a family when a heartbeat couldn’t be found and so much more.” 

For some physicians, specializing in women’s health and medical issues has been a priority. Ariadne Labs associate faculty Rose Molina, MD, MPH, said she chose to specialize in Obstetrics & Gynecology specifically to care for women during some of the most critical moments in their lives. 

“I love mentoring medical students and other trainees to see women’s health from a health justice lens,” Dr. Molina said. “One of the most meaningful parts of my work is performing asylum evaluations for women seeking physical, emotional, and political refugees from abusive people and abusive systems that perpetuate gender inequitable norms.”

Other women physicians have been influential precisely because they did not dwell on gender. Susan Haas, MD, MS, Ariadne Labs Primary Investigator, Patient Safety for System Expansion, cites the influence of Anna Jane Harrison, her chemistry professor in college. “She taught chemistry so well — clear explanations, with wit, so interesting. How could you not love it? But the thing that influenced me most in retrospect was that she just taught chemistry. No gender discussion, no diversity hire, no role model. It was just the air we breathed.” Dr. Haas also recalls mentors who helped her, saying, “We women have to stick together.”

“What made these women memorable is their sheer competence at doing their job and teaching me to be competent too,” Dr. Haas said. 

Ariadne researchers plan to pass on what they have learned. “I hope that my mentorship and sponsorship of women scientists, program managers, and early career colleagues creates a thriving network of the next generation of researchers and public health professionals aiming to make the world a better place,” said Semrau. They also want to encourage women to enter medicine. Said Dr. Molina, “We need your wisdom, compassion, and lived experiences in health care! Everyone benefits when women are part of the health care team.” 

Or as Dr. Mohta put it. “I think every month should be Women in Medicine Month.”