Celebrating Women’s History Month

Celebrating Women’s History Month

Friday, March 4, 2022

Women's History Month — begun as a weeklong observation in 1982 before transitioning to a monthlong annual celebration in 1995 — recognizes the contributions and achievements women have made throughout American history.

As it pertains to our profession, the history of women in medicine and science is no different than the history of women in other areas of society and culture — they have faced discrimination and ostracization, certainly, but ultimately, it is a rich history of achievement, leadership, and inspiration that continues to be written.

For most of the 19th century, women were not admitted to medical school. Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman in the United States to receive a medical degree. Today, women are equally represented in medical school.

"We now have over half of matriculating medical students identifying as female," says Dr. Shika Jain, a medical oncologist at UI Health. "Over 70% of the health workforce is comprised of women, and we are seeing more women enter into leadership positions and leading change to work towards creating more equitable systems."

Physicians like Dr. Susan Bleasdale, Chief Quality Officer at UI Health and Medical Director of Infection Prevention & Control, demonstrate strong leadership and excellence as they lead significant infection-prevention and quality-improvement initiatives. Dr. Bleasdale, one of the most prominent physicians in the COVID-19 response not just at UI Health but also in the city and state, was recently named Woman Physician of the Year by the Illinois Northern Chapter of the American College of Physicians.

Though women are more represented in the medical and science fields today, they still face barriers to becoming physicians and advancing to the same levels of stature, responsibility, and prestige as their male counterparts in both healthcare and academic institutions. Research has shown male physicians earn nearly 25% more over the course of a career than female physicians. Women make up only around 40% of full-time medical school faculty positions, but the percentage from an underrepresented race in medicine (URiM) in below 15%, and most URiM women faculty are at the assistant professor rank. Less than 20% of department chairs are women. Women also are disproportionately burdened with other societal pressures — childcare, family planning — that make pursuing higher education and work opportunities difficult, if not impossible.

It was not until 1990 that the first woman and Hispanic, Dr. Antonia Novello was appointed Surgeon General. And it not until 2005 that the first woman — Dr. Karin Muraszko — was named chair of an American academic neurosurgery department.

The Division of Transplantation at UIC was founded by Dr. Olga Jonasson. A Peoria native, Jonasson received her medical degree at University of Illinois in 1958, and she joined the faculty of University of Illinois in 1967, where she developed the Division of Transplantation. She performed the first ever kidney transplant in the state of Illinois in 1968, and in 1976 was named the first woman to serve on the American College of Surgery Board of Regents. She later became the first woman to be Chief of Surgery of a major hospital in 1977. Throughout her career, she served as a mentor and role-model for young female surgeons.

Mary Niewinski, director of Clinical Nutrition at UI Health, reflects on women's history: "I hope young women today are empowered by the struggles experienced by women in the past and that they strive to make a difference in today's society."

Visit our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion page to view Women's History Month staff spotlight.