Dr. Gloria E. Sarto was one of just six women in her medical school graduating class of 76 in 1958 – a time when many medical schools, she recalled, had quota systems for women and minorities. Later, she became the first female ob.gyn. resident at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
“When I was interviewing for a residency position, the department chair told me ‘I’m going to treat you like one of the boys,’” the 86-year-old professor emeritus said. “And I said, ‘If you do that, it will be just fine.’”
Yet she still had to lobby sometimes for equal treatment – convincing the department chief in one instance that sleeping on a delivery table during hospital duty because there weren’t any rooms for women was not being treated “like one of the boys.” And she was often bothered by her observation that, in general, “the women [residents] weren’t noticed... they weren’t being recognized.”
Dr. Sarto has since chaired two ob.gyn. departments and was the first woman president of the American Gynecological and Obstetrical Society. Today, however, as she continues mentoring junior faculty and works to ensure the smooth succession of programs she founded, she sees a much different field – one in which women not only command more respect but where they make up a majority of ob.gyns.
Impact on women’s health
In 2014, 62% of all ob.gyns. were women (Obstet Gynecol. 2016 Jan;127:148-52). The majority has been years in the making; more women than men have been entering the specialty since 1993. And if current trends continue, the percentage of women active in the specialty will only increase further. In 2010, women comprised more than 80% of all ob.gyn. residents/fellows, more than any other specialty, according to data from the Association of American Medical Colleges.
Such numerical strength is significant, but for Dr. Sarto and other leaders in the specialty who spoke about their experiences as female ob.gyns., it’s the impact that women physicians have had on women’s health that’s most important.
Dr. Sarto helped to start Lamaze classes in a hospital basement amidst widespread opposition from the male-dominated leadership and staff who felt that women didn’t need such help with labor. She also takes pride in her collaboration with Dr. Florence Haseltine, Phyllis Greenberger, and several other women to address biases in biomedical research. Their work with Congress led to a federal audit of National Institutes of Health policies and practices.
“We knew that when that report came out [in 1990], it would hit every newspaper in the country,” Dr. Sarto said. It just about did, and soon after that, the NIH Office of Research on Women’s Health was established to ensure that women were included in clinical trials and that gaps in knowledge of women’s health were addressed.
Dr. Barbara Levy, who left a private practice and two medical directorships in 2012 to become Vice President for Health Policy at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, recalls feeling early in her career that women’s health needed to be approached much more holistically.
“What I was seeing and experiencing didn’t match the textbooks,” she said. “The connection, for instance, between chronic pelvic pain and women who’d been victims of sexual abuse – there wasn’t anything in the literature. I’d see women with the same kinds of physical characteristics on their exams... and patients were willing to share with me things that they wouldn’t have been willing to share with my colleagues.”
Dr. Levy graduated from Princeton University in 1974 with the second class of admitted women, and after a year off, went west for medical school. She graduated in 1979 from the University of California, San Diego, with nine other women in a class of 110.
Her desire to care for the “whole patient” had her leaning toward family medicine until a beloved mentor, Dr. Donna Brooks, “reminded me that there were so few women to take care of women... and that as an ob.gyn. I could follow women through pregnancy, delivery, surgeries, hormone issues, and so many [other facets of their health].”
Dr. Levy, who served as president of the American Association of Gynecologic Laparoscopists in 1995, recalls a world “that was very tolerant of sexual harassment” and remembers the energy she needed to expend to be taken seriously and to correct unconscious bias.
When she applied for fellowship in the American College of Surgeons in the late 1980s, the committee members who conducted an interview “told me right away that I couldn’t expect to be a fellow if I hadn’t done my duty [serving on hospital committees],” Dr. Levy said.