The Conflicting Roles of Female Doctors

Working women with children in general and those in masculine domains in particular are confronted with a dilemma: Based on traditional gender roles, the ideal of a good mother requires them to focus most of their attention on their children and make sure they spend enough time at home, while the ideal of a good worker involves being committed to their job and able to focus most of their time and attention on work related issues. Men don’t face this issue as the ideal father is mostly characterised by being able to provide for their family, which is not in conflict with the ideal worker. So how do women deal with this conflict and how does it relate to their career motivation? Moreover, how can organisations alleviate this conflict?

A study by Berber Pas and colleagues from the Netherlands distinguishes between four different groups of women: Those who identified with the role of the ideal mother but not the role of the ideal worker (the authors call this the care goal frame), those who identify highly with the role of the ideal worker but not the role of the ideal mother (career goal frame), those who identify highly with both (switching goal frames) and those who don’t identify highly with either (non-traditional goal frames).

They further distinguish between three different types of policies which organisations implement in order to help working mothers. One set of arrangements aims at providing working mothers with the opportunity to fulfill their role as an ideal mother and spend more time with their children (ideal mother arrangements), for example part-time work arrangements. Another set of measures (ideal worker arrangements) aims at helping women to fulfill their roles as ideal workers, for example by providing coaching and mentoring. The last set of arrangements (revising work-culture arrangements) includes measures such as flexible work hours and is generally presented in a non-gendered way.

They investigated the relationship between these variables and career motivation in a large sample of female physicians and found that those women with switching goal frames were just as motivated as those with career goal frames and more motivated than the other two groups. Not surprisingly, the effectiveness of measures to increase women’s motivation depended on their goal frames. Women with career goal frames benefited from ideal worker arrangements whereas those with care goal frames benefited from ideal mother arrangements. Revising work-culture arrangements were overall the most motivating regardless of goal frames.

For more details, please check out the original paper, which is a very fascinating read.

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One thought on “The Conflicting Roles of Female Doctors

  1. I think that we should remember that the ideal mother role sometimes will be at the forefront and at other times the ideal worker role will be. I’ve been supported and allowed to be less than full time whilst my children are small and not at school but when that changes and they are able to tolerate a mother who is out of the house from 7am to at least 6pm every day then I will work full time. As my children have become more independent, I have been able to engage more at work and take on extra work and assignments. Children are only small for a short time and “tolerating” women whilst they go through an ideal mother phase and letting them work less and work differently is a smart way to keep women in surgery.
    Of course not all women are “ideal mother” identifiers, but most type A perfectionists apply that to all areas of their lives including parenting and I enjoyed feeding my children home made organic butternut squash purée and breast feeding them and doing all the mummy things. It takes all sorts of women to do surgery and not all of us will choose to have children, but hopefully no woman would feel that she can’t have children because of her career. I see far too many medical students who want to be GP’s because they want to work part time and have children, pick what you love and don’t compromise your career for your as yet unborn children.

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