Warning: The following may contain content that some might find to be “feminist.” Read at your own risk.

So here is an interesting article. Apparently in Canada, and I believe in the United States as well, medical schools are seeing a drastic drop in the number of males entering their programs.

Reading this article, I found myself asking the obvious question: why do we care? I don’t mean this flippantly by any means; clearly we do care or we wouldn’t be writing articles about it, and these schools would not be changing their admissions standards to address it. We care about having a gender balance in our medical schools and in our population of doctors.

As the article points out, the concern behind this has to do with our belief that our doctor demographic should reflect our patient demographic in certain key areas. If all of the physicians out there are one gender, race or religion, we assume that people who seek care and do not fall into this demographic will be neglected in some way. This is a well-founded fear given the history of women’s health being very much neglected when medical care was provided primarily by men. It would not behoove us to reverse the situation simply because the numbers of qualified male applicants to medical school have dropped off.

My next question, though, is how big a difference does that gender bias make? Is a well-qualified female doctor a better choice than a moderately qualified male doctor? Because the issue here isn’t bias toward women; far from it. The article points out that between two equally qualified applicants, one male and one female, the male still has the advantage. The problem is that we’re seeing a drop-off of high caliber male applicants and a rise in the number of female ones. The guys aren’t getting overlooked, they’re just not there.

The same is probably true of men’s health; it’s not going to be suddenly ignored because the face of medicine has become a bit more feminine. Sure, having an equal distribution of male and female doctors would be ideal, but does anyone really think that passing over high-scoring female students in favor of fairly good male students is really going to improve the overall medical care being provided? Apparently Canadian schools do, because their response to the high percentage of females in their first-year classes has prompted a lot of schools to change their admissions requirements.

Now don’t get me wrong; there’s a lot more to being a good physician than just high test scores, and I support admissions standards that reflect this. But it does smack a bit of poor sportsmanship that as soon as the girls start to play the game better than the boys, we up and change the rules.

What I really find funny and a little ludicrous about this move, though, is that the issue here isn’t discrimination. As I said, we’re not choosing women over men because they’re women; the boys still have the advantage in this field. They just don’t seem to want to play. I mean, as much as I would like to take this as a sign that women are just plain smarter than men and are finally given the level playing field to prove it, the issue here probably has a lot more to do with lack of motivation than anything else.

Why are men less motivated to become physicians? I have a couple of theories. Doctors aren’t quite as revered in our society as they once were. Nor do doctors, particularly in Canada, which has a single-payer healthcare system, if I’m not mistaken, consistently make buckets of money. A few specialties are lucrative and a few allow normal working hours, but they are highly competitive for those very reasons. Medical school is expensive, residency is long and arduous; it’s not surprising that many top male students might set their sights toward different fields.

As for women, the same barriers exist, but in recent years the profession has become more welcoming to female practitioners. It’s no longer unheard of or even that frowned upon (except in the most competitive specialties) for a female doctor or resident to go on maternity leave. Some specialties, such as gynecology and obstetrics, often require female practitioners for the comfort of their patients.

On top of all this is the fact that women are starting to dominate college and postgraduate institutions everywhere. I remember reading articles like this one about undergraduate institutions when I was first applying to college. I remember fuming when I discovered that male classmates of mine, with equal high school accomplishments, had received nearly full academic scholarships to attend the same institution that was spotting me a fourth of tuition.

Admissions standards are absolutely not the problem with the changing face of medicine in Canada or the United States. Affirmative action makes some sense if there is a history of discrimination against a group or if the background of that group puts them at a disadvantage. But the male students who are applying to medical school are not in this situation; right now everything is in their favor except for their drive. So the question we should be asking ourselves (or at least the Canadian medical schools should be asking themselves) is how do we motivate the next generation of male students into wanting to be physicians? Pushing out exceptional female candidates in favor of decent male ones is not going to create a stronger physician population down the road.


Note: the article also acknowledges that there are more scholarships available for women applicants, and that surely has some effect on these statistics. I didn’t mention that in this commentary because I don’t think it is the major factor in the gender balance. But if motivation is a factor for men, I think more scholarship aid for them is a reasonable way to go.