Gifty Dominah cannot remember a time growing up that she did not think about becoming a doctor.
“When I was five years old, and my dad would ask me what I wanted to be, I would say, ‘A doctor,’” she said. “It was one of the only careers that I knew about, but I knew that I liked it.”
In August, the 24-year-old from Maryland entered the George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington.
Medicine historically has attracted fewer women than men because of long working hours associated with the profession and the rigorous academic background required in advanced science and math — subjects that women have been less likely to pursue. Three decades ago, just over a third of medical students were women.
But this year, Dominah joined a class of medical students that for the first time is majority female nationwide, according to a new report by the Washington-based Association of American Medical Colleges. After making steady gains since the 1960s, women have hovered close to the 50 percent mark nationally for the past 15 years.
The number of male applicants was slightly higher in 2017. But since 2015, male applicants declined while female applicants increased.
Many advocates of the profession credit the increasing number of women in medical schools to a growing emphasis on so-called pipeline programs that encourage girls to pursue math and science from the time they are in grade school.
“Many of these programs show that women are just as talented and capable in the sciences,” said Geoffrey Young, senior director for student affairs and programs at the association.
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The association is hopeful that the increasing number of women, along with a rise in the numbers of underrepresented racial minorities, will help fill a projected shortage of physicians needed to serve the nation’s growing aging population.
In addition to a cultural shift in which educators and families are more encouraging of women pursuing science-based careers, said Yolanda Haywood, senior associate dean for diversity and inclusion and associate dean for student affairs at George Washington University, there also is more acceptance of working mothers.
But while women are making strides in medical schools, barriers remain in the field. Women overpopulate the lower rungs of academia in medical schools, and they remain in small numbers in some high-paid specialties, including orthopedic surgery and cardiovascular disease.
There is concern about a high rate of burnout, particularly among female physicians.
With more women entering the field, more people are talking about these issues and looking for solutions, said Kim Templeton, former president of the American Medical Women’s Association and a professor of orthopedic surgery at University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City.
Templeton is conducting research about female physicians who are advanced in their careers and balancing work with caring for children and older family members.
“Even as busy professionals, women are still the ones in the family who are expected to take care of all these things at home,” she said.