Marked improvements seen for women in dermatology since the 1970s


Wilma F. Bergfeld, MD, one of only five women in her medical school class of 1964 and the third female in her dermatology residency program, had recently been appointed as a junior clinical dermatologist and head of dermatopathology at the Cleveland Clinic when she was told by a superior that she would not be promoted or invited to serve on any committee or decision-making group.

Dr. Wilma Bergfeld, professor of dermatology, Cleveland Clinic

Dr. Wilma Bergfeld

“I was told I should go home at night and take care of my husband and two children,” she recalled of that moment in the 1970s. The comment made her feel “outraged,” and it drove her, calmly and steadily, to work harder and to “challenge the system.”

Dr. Bergfeld not only was elected to the Cleveland Clinic’s board of governors and board of trustees and served as president of the Clinic’s staff in 1990, she also became the first woman president of the American Academy of Dermatology (1992) and led numerous other dermatologic organizations. Much earlier on, in 1973, to help fulfill her vision of “women helping women,” she had also founded the Women’s Dermatologic Society (WDS). Three years earlier, in 1970, 6.9% of the approximately 4,000 dermatologists in the United States were women, according to the American Medical Association.

Dr. Bergfeld’s career trajectory in leadership, education, and patient care paralleled a rise of women in dermatology. Today, when she goes to work as the long-time director of the Clinic’s dermatopathology fellowship and professor of dermatology and pathology at the Cleveland Clinic Educational Foundation, she sees a transformed staff and, more broadly, a national physician workforce in which women made up almost 50% of active dermatologists in 2017 and almost 60% of dermatology residents in 2018, according to data from the American Association of Medical Colleges.

It’s a different and better world, she and other women dermatologists said, but one in which women must continue to mentor other women and continue to challenge the system. Achieving work-life balance, fairer compensation, and a greater proportion of women in the higher ranks of academia are all on their work list.

Women’s impact on the specialty

Dr. Bergfeld and Molly Hinshaw, MD, the current president of the WDS, said they believe women are drawn to dermatology for its visual nature, the growth in diagnostic tests and therapies, and the opportunity to diagnose early and prevent progression of disease in patients of all ages. “It’s a small but mighty specialty,” said Dr. Hinshaw, associate professor of dermatology and section chief of dermatopathology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Dr. Molly Hinshaw, department of dermatology, Madison, Wisconsin

Dr. Molly Hinshaw

It’s also a versatile specialty with a variety of subspecialties and niches to pursue – and women have been stepping in to fill unmet needs, Dr. Hinshaw said. “Women dermatologists are directing vulvar specialty clinics across the country, for example. There aren’t that many, but they’re filling an important niche. We have one at [our university] and it is packed.”

Women have also been drawn to the in-demand subspecialty of pediatric dermatology, she noted. They now make up more than two-thirds of all pediatric dermatologists, and many in practice have trained the old-fashioned way, completing two residencies. “That’s [involved] self-selection into an additional year of years training and a commitment to caring for special populations that, quite honestly, takes more time,” said Dr. Hinshaw, who, as part of her dermatology practice, runs a nail clinic at UW Health in Madison.

Amy S. Paller, MD, who chairs the department of dermatology at Northwestern University, Chicago, where she is professor of dermatology and pediatrics and directs the Skin Biology & Diseases Resource-Based Center, is one of these women. She took a long and determined journey into the subspecialty, encountering bias and discouragement while actively seeking out mentors who helped her advance.

Courtesy of Northwestern Memorial HealthCare

Dr. Amy Paller

While in medical school at Stanford (Calif.) University in the late 1970s in a class “very progressively” made up of about one-third women, Dr. Paller met Alvin Jacobs, MD, who, in 1975, had founded the Society for Pediatric Dermatology. “There wasn’t much pediatric dermatology in the world at the time, and it was Al who helped [me realize] that it combined my love of genetic research with my [desire] to work with children,” she recalled.

Per Dr. Jacob’s advice, she went to Northwestern to train in both pediatrics and dermatology under Nancy Esterly, MD, who “is considered by many to be the mother of pediatric dermatology.” And knowing that she wanted to do research, Dr. Paller also worked with Ruth Freinkel, MD, who “was the strongest bench researcher” at Northwestern. (Dr. Freinkel had been one of the first female dermatology residents at Harvard and was the first full-time faculty member in dermatology at Northwestern).

After completing postdoctoral research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Dr. Paller returned to Chicago and assumed Dr. Esterly’s position as chief of dermatology at the Children’s National Hospital of Chicago. It was there that “someone in a leadership position questioned me about how I could possibly be a scientist, a strong clinician, and a good mother to my three children – and suggested that I drop research,” Dr. Paller recalled.

“I think this person was trying to be helpful to me, but I was shocked,” she said. Just as Dr. Bergfeld had done, Dr. Paller channeled her frustration into new pursuits.

“It made me go home and think, how could I strengthen myself? What else could I do?” she said. “Soon after, with a highly supportive husband, I did a ‘pseudosabbatical,’ basically spending every ounce of spare time I had working with one of the premier female scientists in the country, Elaine Fuchs, and learning molecular biology” in her lab at the University of Chicago.

“I think we’ve all had discrimination along the way. Sometimes there’s implicit bias and sometimes there’s overt bias,” said Dr. Paller, who in 2004 led the society which her mentor Dr. Jacobs had founded several decades earlier. “I just jumped right in, and that’s enabled me to find good role models.”

Across dermatology broadly, the often holistic nature of the specialty – of the ability to peer into the body and its internal health – is another quality that women have been drawn to and advanced, Dr. Hinshaw said. “One of the reasons why I chose dermatology is because it’s a window to total patient health. Patients often see their dermatologists as physicians who help them identify next steps in their health care, who can help them address issues related to their overall health and well-being, including their mental health.”

In a WDS membership survey conducted in 2018, most respondents reported that they frequently or occasionally detect and diagnose systemic/internal diseases and conditions in their female patients, and that they consult and collaborate with different kinds of physicians (Int J Womens Dermatol. 2018 Nov 15;4[4]:189-92).

And in a March 2019 “Dialogues in Dermatology” podcast episode on the history and advancement of women in dermatology produced by the American Academy of Dermatology, Pearl Grimes, MD, a clinical professor of dermatology of the University of California, Los Angeles, and then-president of the WDS, described why “total women’s health” had become an additional focus for the society.

“We’re already gatekeepers” in many respects, Dr. Grimes said. “In addition to my addressing specific skin issues, my patients query me on hormone issues, on nutrition, on stress-related issues….and on [what other physicians they should see].”

Dr. Phoebe Rich

Phoebe Rich, MD, who owns a small all-woman practice and a research center in Portland, Oregon, said that, in general, many women also communicate and practice in a way that facilitates holistic care. “These qualities aren’t exclusive to women, but women are very caring. We take time and are interested in [patients’] lives in general, not just their disease.”


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