Marianne Matthews

My friend Maria is a rare bird. She’s the leader of a world-renowned 19-piece jazz orchestra that travels around the globe performing at festivals and clubs for audiences numbering well into the thousands. What’s more, Maria has garnered major media attention and captured a number of Grammys. Interestingly, her “big band” includes only two other women, both in the horn section. Why? Jazz is still very much a male-dominated field, yet I get a kick out of how well the “boys” in the band take direction from this petite but powerful composer and conductor. Maria demands commitment, creativity, and collaboration. She pulls the band together—and gets them humming her tune—whether in the studio, on the stage, or on the train or plane to the next gig.

Women in radiology struggle with some of the same challenges as women in jazz. First, there is the shortage of female mentors. When there are fewer women in the field to begin with, it isn’t easy to find a role model to emulate. According to the American College of Radiology (ACR), women made up just 18% of professionally active radiologists in the United States in 2003. The good news is, that figure is up from 16% in 2000, so the numbers are slowly climbing.

Then there is the life-work balance issue. (Imagine trying to build a jazz career—which means being “on the road” more often than not—and trying to raise a family, too?) Female radiologists face similar pressure in a career that often demands night and emergency reads. It’s tough to juggle it all, though teleradiology careers as well as state-of-the-art informatics/remote reading solutions are helping to change that. Today, more female radiologists have the option to work from home at select life stages, such as during the childbearing years. This, hopefully, will draw more to the profession.

Finally, radiology is seen as highly competitive. It poses unique barriers as a medical specialty requiring additional study and a year of internship. A recent article in our sister publication, Axis Imaging News (October 2008), sums up the situation: “According to figures from Meharry Medical College, Nashville, Tenn, 167 programs in diagnostic radiology nationwide offer 928 postgraduate year-two positions annually. Compare this to the total residency programs in medicine, where 3,475 programs exist offering more than 22,000 positions. Radiology, therefore, represents only 4% of the field, with restricted training opportunities and spots available.”

Some experts believe women may shy away from the radiology profession simply because they view it to be too competitive. (When that jazz quartet is seeking a new trumpet player, you can bet at best it’ll be one woman up against 10 men. Those kinds of odds are wearying.)

Simply put, women remain under-represented in the medical imaging field. Thankfully, industry associations are encouraging diversity. A spokesperson from the ACR commented on the subject, saying, “Radiology, of course, wants to be open to women and men of all races, ethnicities, and religions. The ACR has worked to increase the number of total radiology residency slots by 300, in an effort to not only alleviate the shortage of radiologists, but to gain more minority and female applicants to the process.” (Axis Imaging News, October 2008)

But it seems that in the end, it will have to be women radiologists themselves who will improve the situation and attract others like them to the field. Women are getting on the bandwagon to make the future of the profession better for all females. RSNA News (October 2008) recently reported on women radiologists from here and abroad who are “fueling a drive for solutions to the professional challenges they face.”

The article noted a special session at the European Congress of Radiology that featured a panel of speakers and focused on topics like the sociology of gender employment, the working environment, family obligations throughout one’s career, and conflicts in combining parenthood and academic work.

And, as I write this editorial, the American Association for Women Radiologists (AAWR) President’s Luncheon at RSNA 2008 is set to focus a session on improving job-negotiation skills. The scheduled speaker is AAWR President Etta D. Pisano, MD, vice dean for academic affairs and the Kenan Professor of Radiology and Biomedical Engineering and director of the University of North Carolina Biomedical Research Imaging Center. Pisano plans to talk about what to expect in negotiations, and to convey the message that women need to get an appropriate salary from the start.

My own experience tells me that female radiologists—even if small in numbers presently—need to promote themselves better. In doing so, they will encourage other women to take up the specialty. They need to be on the speaker circuit, leading panel discussions, and interacting with the media. I’ve been editor of Medical Imaging and Axis Imaging News for a year and a half, and I am hard pressed to find enough female radiologists to share their expertise and knowledge in interviews for our many articles. I know you’re out there. I’d like to hear from you. So toot your own horn. I’m listening.

Marianne Matthews, editor