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“I may be essential but someone has to look after my kids”: women physicians and COVID-19

Objectives

This paper analyzes results from focus groups held with women physicians in British Columbia which explored questions around how gender norms and roles influenced their experiences during COVID-19.

Methods

Four virtual focus groups were organized between July and September 2020. Participants (n = 27) were voluntarily recruited. Data were analyzed using applied thematic analysis.

Results

In addition to the COVID-19-related changes experienced across the profession, women physicians faced distinct challenges related to an increase in unpaid care responsibilities, and often felt excluded from, and occasionally dismissed by, leadership. Women leaders often felt their contributions were unrecognized and undervalued. Participants drew strength from other women leaders, peer networks, and professional support, but these strategies were limited by unpaid care and emotional labour demands, which were identified as increasing risk of burnout.

Discussion

Even though women physicians hold a degree of relative privilege, unpaid care work and gender norms contribute to distinct secondary effects of COVID-19. Women physicians link these to pre-pandemic assumptions (within families and communities) that women would absorb care deficits at their own cost. Health system leadership continues to reflect a masculine normative experience wherein the personal and professional are separated, and which devalues the emotional labour often associated with feminine leadership. The strategies participants employed to address negative impacts, while demonstrating resourcefulness and peer support, reflect individualistic responses to social-structural challenges. There is a need for greater recognition of women’s contributions at home and work, increased representation in decision-making, and practical supports such as childcare and counselling.

Smith, J., Abouzaid, L., Masuhara, J. et al. “I may be essential but someone has to look after my kids”: women physicians and COVID-19. Can J Public Health (2021). https://doi.org/10.17269/s41997-021-00595-4

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