Female BYU pre-med students say they face cultural barriers

Pre-med student Grace Whitehead working in a BYU lab. Whitehead said female pre-med students should remember they’re “needed in the medical community.” (Photo courtesy of Grace Whitehead)

Several of BYU’s female pre-med students say cultural barriers are discouraging women from pursuing careers in medicine.

Nationally, women make up more than 50% of pre-medicine students but at BYU, female pre-med students are only about 13-15% of the student population.

Pre-med student Grace Whitehead called the gender disparity an “elephant in the room” among her pre-med peers, but said it is rarely addressed and there are plenty of misconceptions about the female pre-med experience.

“They think that I’ll have an easier chance of getting into medical school,” Whitehead said of her male peers, adding that many she has talked to assume BYU also has a 50/50 ratio of male to female pre-med students.

“Nope,” Whitehead said. “BYU is the odd one out.”

Beth Hammond, a pre-med student and co-president of BYU’s American Medical Women’s Association chapter said cultural expectations at BYU have been tricky to navigate.

“There’s … this expectation that if you’re a doctor, you can’t even like, stay at home full time and and things like that,” Hammond said.

Beth Hammond, co-president of BYU’s American Medical Women’s Association says cultural expectations at BYU have been tricky to navigate. Hammond said she wants to use her gifts to help others in medicine. (Courtesy of Beth Hammond)

Whitehead said she has felt that people expect her to still plan her career around being a stay-at-home mom, encouraging her to choose family practice instead of surgery in order to stay home with kids.

Whitehead said her plan is for her husband can stay home with the kids. “Why shouldn’t it be reversed?” she said. “If I am able to do this, then I should do it.”

Hammond said she feels her ability to learn is a gift and she wants to use it well.

“I feel like I have so much capacity and so much that I can do with my brain and with my mind,” Hammond explained. “I feel like there’s a lot that I can do and a lot of service that I can do in that way.”

Whitehead said she has been anxious about her life and career path because of cultural expectations from church.

“Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between culture and doctrine,” Whitehead said. “Once you start drawing that line, life becomes much easier.”

BYU pre-med student Lydia Busacker said finding female mentors and participating in clubs like AMWA has helped her feel supported and find belonging.

“It’s great to have a woman to support you, like someone who knows your experience a little bit better and who can relate to you,” Busacker said.

Hammond said she hopes encouraging diversity at BYU will create a better environment for all, especially women who plan on careers. New ideas would be viewed as exciting and good instead of strange, Hammond hopes.

“I think making our campus a more diverse environment will invite people to, like, broaden their perspective,” she said.

Whitehead said she thinks the gender disparity is a chance for male pre-med students to rise to the occasion and become better allies. In a profession that pledges to help others heal, Whitehead said empathy will be a critical skill.

“Working on developing empathy in undergrad will help them to become better physicians in the future,” Whitehead said.

Whitehead also encouraged women who are planning on a career in medicine to believe in themselves and trust their decisions regardless of what others may think.

“You’re needed in the medical community,” Whitehead said. “Your future patients will need you. You will impact people’s lives.”

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