The “maternal wall” is a phrase coined by lawyer and professor Joan C. Williams that describes a woman’s dedication to her work being questioned after becoming a mother based on the assumption that women must be at home caring for their family.
As a result, women may be overlooked for leadership roles or career growth opportunities because of the assumption that they won’t have the time needed to make work a priority.
This is one of many challenges women face in the medical field, specifically those expecting or in postpartum.
“From the start of medical school onward, women physicians in training face an uphill battle. When you add a baby to the mix, the stress is compounded even further,” said Eleanor Sharp, MD, MS, assistant professor of pediatrics and the associate program director for the pediatric hospital medicine fellowship at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. “For physician trainee parents, balance or work-life integration is really difficult to achieve.”
Sharp spoke to the university community at the UTHealth Houston Diversity and Equity Speaker Series event on March 22 with a presentation focused on advocating for residents and fellows from pregnancy to parenthood.
Sharp’s presentation stressed the inequalities women face in medicine, which include implicit gender bias, likability paradox, inadequate mentorship, non-promotable tasks, and unequal compensation.
According to research done by Sharp’s group at UPMC, a survey with more than 1,700 female parent trainees reported high-stress levels and experienced disproportionate burdens, particularly in the domains of parental leave and breastfeeding.
Sharp believes these findings create opportunities for institutional interventions and systemic changes at three different levels: program, institutional, and national.
The program level aspirations include creative curricular interventions, flexibility within the workplace, and coverage models such as non-resident protection for parental leave.
At the institutional level, the goal should be for on-site child care, which includes weekends and affordable and reliable support, breastfeeding facilitators, and transparent policies.
The hope for the national level is financial support where legislation supports the parents, parental leave, space and support for miscarriage, and mentorship.
A video of the full presentation can be found online, and is accessible using UTHealth Houston credentials.