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Advocating for Gender Equity in Medicine

Specializing in women’s health provides the diversity that Dr. Gina Colbourne was seeking when she first earned her medical degree. As an obstetrician and gynecologist on PEI, she has the opportunity to work in the labour and delivery unit, outpatient clinic, and the operating room while treating a whole host of issues ranging from infertility and pregnancy complications to sexual health and gynecological cancers. Dr. Colbourne loves her job and is dedicated to advancing women’s health in the province. Outside of her clinical practice, however, she is most passionate about bringing awareness to a side of medicine that some might not notice or prefer to avoid.  

 “Not everyone wants to talk about it, but there are still significant inequities faced by women in medicine,” Dr. Colbourne said. “I’ve always been a little bit of a feminist and trying to advance women’s rights and women’s health is something I prioritize right up there with caring for my patients.” 

 International Women’s Day and Canadian Women Physicians Day are recognized in March and Dr. Colbourne wants to see the awareness and importance of both days elevated in the province and across the country.  

 Dr. Colbourne sits on the Board of Directors for the Canadian Women in Medicine (CWIM) organization, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to supporting women physicians across the country. The organization offers mentorship, leadership development, and advocacy initiatives to help women combat gender inequities in medicine. One of CWIM’s annual initiatives is marking and celebrating Canadian Women Physicians Day on March 11,  

 Canadian Women Physicians Day was established in 2021 by Dr. Liana Huang, a family medicine specialist in Calgary, Alberta. The intention behind the day is to acknowledge the trailblazing women physicians of the past who have overcome challenges and fought tirelessly for gender equity in medicine. It is also a day to celebrate current women physicians and their achievements, while acknowledging the gender inequities in medicine and the changes still needed as a result. 

 Dr. Colbourne says there are many challenges women physicians continue to face in medicine, such as gendered stereotypes, pay inequity, harassment, unfair role expectations, and a higher rate of burnout. In a Canadian Medical Association (CMA) survey of female identifying physicians and medical students, 77 per cent said they experienced gender inequity in their training or practice setting, and 99 per cent reported that inequity hurt their sense of well-being. At the same time, 83 per cent said their workplace does not offer any organizational practices, programs, policies or resources to support women in medicine. 

 “There are obvious systemic issues but also some hidden inequities that need to change,” Dr. Colbourne said. “Women physicians are more likely to be called ‘ma’am’ or ‘miss’ rather than ‘doctor.’ Patient expectations in terms of time spent and therapeutic conversation are different for women physicians than they are for men. Colleagues and co-workers have a higher tolerance for certain behaviours when they are exhibited by a male physician versus a female physician. Over time, these are the types of things a person tends to internalize, and it can become ingrained, almost accepted, without realizing it. It can lower your self-confidence and level of assertiveness, and that is not okay; in fact, it’s infuriating.” 

 Confronting inequity in medicine is a shared responsibility and Dr. Colbourne believes there have been some positive strides made in the past few years. Medicine used to be a male-dominated field, but an increasing number of physicians are women. In her specialty on PEI, for instance, there are now more women physicians than men. Dr. Colbourne also points to the number of women in leadership positions throughout the healthcare system on PEI. 

 “As a woman physician who puts so much time, energy, training and heart into patient care, it’s frustrating to be dismissed or diminished because of your gender,” Dr. Colbourne said. “Things are changing for sure, and part of the reason for that is there are more women in medicine, which is a trend I hope continues. But I also think we need to start ‘noticing and naming.’ When we see an example of sexism in medicine or gender inequity, call it out for what it is. It is only in naming the inequities we see that we can truly create awareness and vision for change.” 

 For more information about the Canadian Women in Medicine (CWIM) organization, visit:  




Canadian Women Physicians Day was named on March 11 to commemorate the date of medical licensure of Dr. Jennie Trout. In 1875, Dr. Trout was the first woman licensed to practice medicine in Canada. In 1871, she and Dr. Emily Stowe were the first women accepted to a qualifying course offered by the University of Toronto School of Medicine. Despite opposition from classmates and professors, they passed the qualifying course in 1872. At the time, however, Canadian medical schools did not accept female students, so Dr. Trout attended the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. She graduated in 1875 and returned to Ontario where she was licensed and opened her own practice. After her retirement, Dr. Trout focused on advocacy for medical education for women. In 1883, a group of physicians from the Toronto School of Medicine were planning to create a new medical school for women in Toronto. Dr. Trout pledged support with the condition that the majority of the board trustees were women and that women would be allowed to teach there. This proposal was rejected. Dr. Trout therefore went on to help with the creation of the Women’s Medical College in Kingston Ontario, affiliated with Queens University. The Toronto School of Medicine later changed its position, and both schools were united as the Ontario Medical College for Women in 1984.