Gender Roles on the Culture of American Medicine


Social constructs are embedded in the everyday lives of people. Constructs can range from a vast majority of things within different cultures throughout the world. Women have gone through a history of steps in order to get to a place where they can be equal to men and even now, there are gender differences between men and woman that are still prevalent today. Woman have gone a long way from the woman’s suffrage movement since the 1800s. Women have fought their way to vote, to own land, and to be more independent overall. Women have been expected to be obedient to their husbands and to stay at home to watch over the kids. They weren’t allowed in politics, they weren’t allowed to vote, and they were not allowed to be apart of the sciences. It is interesting that women were always a central provider in caring for the family or acting as the nurses, however, Medical professions have been male-dominated for most of medical history. “It was only in the 1900s, after much struggle, that women won the right to study and practice medicine in the same way as men” (Women in medicine). The social construction of gender roles that are rooted in America, has created a certain criterion in how males and females are supposed to act. Women in the medical field are in a historically male dominated profession. They are watched more closely and are expected to uphold a certain image created by a male dominated profession. The gender roles constructed in American culture affect the culture of American medicine in how woman and men are perceived in the setting of medical professions.

Social Sciences discipline – Sociology

Occupational Segregation is defined as separating workers across and within an occupation based on certain characteristics, most often gender. Judith Lorber a professor of sociology in women’s studies, describes women in the medical system to be “ghettoized”. In other words, women are restricted or confined to a carrier. Lorber suggests in “Paradoxes of Gender” (1995) that women tend to be restricted to the lower hierarchy of medical careers because there are not as many opportunities for them in higher positions. Susan Hinze works in the department of medical sociology and her work titled, “Gender and the Body of Medicine or At Least Some Body Parts” (1999), focuses on how physicians perceive the medical hierarchy regarding gender roles. The physicians interviewed agreed that there is a hierarchy between positions, however, women are more resistant to the idea of hierarchy based on prestige. The study showed that medicine is institutionalized by symbolic bodies. The higher body of prestige is described as macho, action-oriented, and physical. While the lower body of prestige is described as passive, less physical, and effective. In the 1960s, women made up 5% of medical students and in 1993 they made up 42%. As the increase of specialization and women in the medical industry began, the wage gap between specialization and primary care physicians grew. Hinze states that there are few studies that focus on the hierarchy of the medical system based on gender because not many women took careers as physicians. The most recent studies only focused on why women paid greater interest in primary care specialties. According to Hinze, there are three types of explanations. The “social roles perspective,”” suggests that women choose specialties that are less time-consuming and demanding…because of family responsibilities” (Hinze, 1999). Her second explanation is “Cultural feminist perspective”, this means that woman want to be more active in their patient lives and have a holistic approach to medicine. The last explanation is the “liberal feminist perspective”, this suggests that woman have more discrimination or deterrents from other associates. The concept of prestige hierarchy can impact both women and men. One of the women that Hinze interviewed, suggested that men are concerned about how much money they make and what woman they would get, while women focus on time for herself and having a fulfilling job. In the larger study of 405 participants, 58% of women expressed that prestige is not as significant compared to only 40% of men. Two important questions arose from those who opposed the idea of prestige. “Are women more likely to resist because they see the hierarchy as male-defined or because they tend to be lowest in the hierarchy?” (Hinze, 199, p224). Women in higher positions like surgeons didn’t resist, they believed that they were more valuable. It became clear that status represents resistance more than gender. The second question was, “what is the resistance based upon?” (Hinze, 1999, p. 224). It is based upon high value attached to interventionist specialties, the “macho” value, and the stress for those women choosing a male persona when going for higher renown specialty.

Looking at gender roles through the discipline of sociology gives a different perspective on how gender roles are formed in a society, especially in the medical fields. Many residents placed surgery at the top of the hierarchy chain in the medical field, because of a “surgeon’s hands touch, enter, or probe the human body” (Hinze, 1999, p 225). Surgery is a form of “active” medicine because of the use of the hands in “fixing” the problem. Women used to have the healing hands, but it wasn’t until medicine became professionalized is when men decided to take the role on themselves. Hinze mentions that women are more likely to go into specialties like pediatrics and psychiatry which are deemed as inactive because they do not fix anything with their hands.

Applied Sciences – Education and Anthropology

There is no doubt that there are stereotypes that come with certain jobs and how males dominate certain professions. There are stereotypes that woman are nurses and men tend to be surgeons or in positions that are more “difficult”/make more money. In “Doing Gender, Doing Surgery: Women Surgeons in a Man’s Profession” by Joan Cassel, a professor of anthropology at Harvard University, Cassel looks at women involved in the male-dominated world of surgery and how they are different from their male counterpart. There is this spectrum of the “gender differences” when it comes to male versus female in the medical field. Women are assumed to be more caring, while men are detached and competitive. “In the 1980s, surgery was a “”men’s club”” — it still is, in many ways, although the number of women in surgery has increased almost tenfold from 1970 to 1993 and is still growing” (Cassel, 1997, p. 47). The woman surgeons that Cassel interviewed stated that in order to be a good surgeon, you must have compassion in order to relate to the patient. Behavioral scientists, Kessler, and Mckenn (1978) argue that when humans talk about differences, we generally put them in two categories, “[t]he basis for classification being the ‘incorrigible proposition’ that humans are ‘naturally’ divided into two genders” (Cassel, 1997). Female surgeons are aware that they are being observed and this sentiment pressures them to perform well. They can feel isolated from professional networks and confined into gender-stereotyped roles. As a male surgeon, they are expected to be the “King of the Hill” while women are expected to be “Captain of the Team”. (Cassel, 1997). Female surgeons are expected to use their “feminine ways” of teaching to bypass getting called difficult to work with. Woman have received access to the “men’s house” since the 1980s and been expected to perform a certain way in the world of surgical medicine. Cassell is an academic anthropologist with a focus on gender. Anthropologists have studied human culture and looked at social structures, especially on gender roles associated with inequalities. Anthropologists look at human experiences holistically. We can learn about gender roles cross-culturally to get a better understanding of how gender is viewed throughout the world. Sex is a “fixed classification based on perceived morphological criteria defining an individual as male, female, or hermaphrodite — gender is a socio-cultural construction, which is not necessarily binary” (Kessler and McKenna 1978). We can see how culture can construct gender through education and viewing gender cross-culturally. The past of the medical industry in America was mostly male-dominated and this history has rooted these gender roles between male and female medical professionals.

Diversity framework – Gender Bias in Western Medicine and the Beauty Myth

Since Gender is socio-cultural construction, each culture has their own rules and biases when it comes to gender. Western medicine, from an anthropological perspective, is different than traditional healers. We see a difference in gender roles in traditional medical practices, where shamans can be a woman and held equally in medical practices. “[P]ractitioners of Western biomedicine invoke metaphors that reveal underlying social meanings: activity vs. passivity, fixing vs. maintaining, hands-on vs. hands-off, invasive vs. noninvasive, technological vs. personal care-and in each, the former dominates the latter, and the latter is associated with the feminine.” (Hinze, 1999). America’s culture of medicine is predominantly following the biomedical system. Biomedicine for centuries has been associated with the doing and fixing model where they treat symptoms alone. Biomedicine is a “hard science, real medicine, aggressive intervention, the cure, and conquest of real disease” (Stein, 1990, p 51). These are phrases that are associated with masculinity. The way language is used in a medical setting is anchored to be more of a male dominant. Surgery is associated with expressions that are masculine. The languages associated with femininity tend to be associated with the “soft sciences”. These would include those working in family medicine. Howard Stein from the University of Oklahoma looked at medicine in America as a culture. Gender issues are prevalent in the culture of medicine. “In medical education and practice alike, clinical roles, knowledge, skills, and theories are compartmentalized according to culturally widespread categories of gender” (Stein, 1990, p. 53).

When thinking about beauty and the concepts that society has created, pain is something that has been accepted as a part of being beautiful. The saying “pain is beauty”, the statement “Women must labor to be beautiful” and the Bible telling women that because of the sins of Eve, God will increase the pain for women in labor to bring children, and women must desire and honor their husbands (Genesis 3:16), has created something that has affected women’s emotional and physical health for ages. Naomi Wolf is a feminist author and journalist, is most known for her book, “The Beauty Myth”. She looks at the relationship between beauty and female Identity. She notes on western culture, “A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one” (Wolf, 2009, p. 186). The way that women are seen in the world, especially in patriarchal societies, is that women are weak and are characterized as a “misbegotten man”. Woman have menstruation, they age, they have menopause. This was a form of weakness and now it is a norm. The reclassification of the new age women of pain is the beauty caused by cosmetic surgery. The surgical age took over the age of female mental illness in the 19th century. Hysteria was a phase of “medical coercion consistently finding new ways to determine that what is female is sick” (Naomi Wolf, p. 221). This myth had benefited doctors in medical history and they profited from saying that women were sick. As more women entered medical schools and taking on their original roles as traditional healers, and being capable to attend to the sick, the surgical age for cosmetic surgical doctors expanded. “Victorian doctors helped support a culture that needed to view women through ovarian determinism, modern cosmetic surgeons do the same for society by creating a system of beauty determinism” (Wolf, 2009), as the aesthetic value of a woman’s face and body supports today’s culture.


Women from the very beginning are taught to see that throwing tantrums or throwing fits was not “”ladylike”” and males were taught to be tough and if they fall down and cry they were seen to be weak. Female surgeons must act a certain way but can’t too aggressive, they must use their “feminine strategies” to get their way. Cassel (1997) states that males need women not only as wives and sexual triumphs but as a category for exclusion. What is considered right is something fragile and any women’s involvement is a formula for destruction. Motherhood is the only gender associated with women, every other role woman fit was something created by man themselves. Gender is a socially constructed idea that can be organized to fit people into categories society sees fit as male and female. The position of a surgeon has been originally established in the male territory. A woman can symbolically grow balls because she must be macho and tough in order to compete with men in medical school. (Hinze, 1999). In order to be a well-respected female surgeon, they must be assertive and tough, but still be feminine by dressing well, being professional and competent. Women in male-dominated specialties are pressured to be tough while still acting like a girl and it is a lot more difficult for them while working because men never have to worry about things like that. “There is more to gender than social structure, process, and interaction. Something else is going on, something deeper, less easily altered or eradicated … gender exists not only “”in the head,”” … but also “”in the body.”” (Hinze, 1999). In other words, gender is not only performed, but it is also embodied. The culture of American medicine is affected by gender roles. We see it in the relationship women have with themselves and the pressure they must uphold a social standard in the medical field and in physical beauty, as Naomi Wolf states, “Beauty provokes harassment, the law says, but it looks through men’s eyes when deciding what provokes it.” (Wolf, 2009).


When I saw the topic of gender roles to be a topic of choice for the multidisciplinary analysis of human sexuality, the first thing that popped in my head was gender roles in American Medicine. I have previously taken Medical Anthropology last semester and we briefly read a chapter from Naomi Wolf’s book, “The Beauty Myth”. When I looked further into the culture of medicine, I found more information on how there are gender differences between female and male surgeons. The Beauty Myth reminded me of the saying “beauty is pain”. I feel like this saying is well known amongst people and woman have been more known to get cosmetic surgery than men. I find it interesting that woman is targeted for cosmetic surgery and women are also expected to “be a certain way” when working in the medical field. I saw woman being stereotyped both within the medical field and those seeking medical cosmetic surgery due to this embedded cultural structure in America. This assignment was essential in approving my research and writing skills. I am trying to improve my research and writing skills, because I am planning on going to grad school and I do know that I will be conducting more multidisciplinary research papers, especially on my future thesis. This assignment helped me be more self-aware on how the roles of females have been historically constructed by men and how women are now trying to break free from this idealized vision of how a woman should be.


Cassell, J. (1997). Doing Gender, Doing Surgery: Women Surgeons in a Man’s Profession. Human Organization, 56(1), 47-52.

Hinze, S. W. (1999). Gender and the Body of Medicine or at Least Some Body Parts: (Re)Constructing the Prestige Hierarchy of Medical Specialties. The Sociological Quarterly, 40(2), 217-239.

Kessler, Suzanne J. and Wendy McKenna

1978 Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Lorber, J. (1995). Paradoxes of gender. Yale University Press.

Science Museum. Brought to Life: Exploring the History of Medicine. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Stein, H. F., & Stein, M. A. (1990). American medicine as culture. Boulder: Westview Press.

Wolf, N. (2009). The beauty myth: How images of beauty are used against women: With an introduction by the author. London: Vintage Books.

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