Male-Female Enrollment in Med School More Balanced Again

November 17, 2016

The number of women enrolling in US medical schools this fall surged 6.2% compared with last year, making it the largest increase since 2006, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) announced earlier this month.

And with that surge, the gender split in medical school enrollees, or matriculants, is balanced at roughly 50/50 again.

However, the percentage of medical school matriculants who were female dipped noticeably during the last 10 years, falling from 48.6% in 2006 to 46.4% in 2012. After 2012, that percentage climbed to its present level of 49.8%.

The same trend shows up in first-time applicants. The percentage who were women fell from 50.4% in 2006 to 47.3% in 2012 and then rose to 50.8% in 2016.

So what happened? AAMC officials can't say for certain, but they have a theory.

Table 1. Percentage of First-Time Medical School Matriculants Who Are Women

Year Total Matriculants (n) Female Matriculants (n) Percentage of Female Matriculants
2006 17,361 8438 48.6
2007 17,759 8582 48.3
2008 18,036 8614 47.8
2009 18,390 8817 47.9
2010 18,665 8756 46.9
2011 19,230 9037 47.0
2012 19,517 9064 46.4
2013 20,055 9467 47.2
2014 20,343 9718 47.8
2015 20,631 9861 47.8
2016 21,030 10,474 49.8

 

To be sure, although female enrollment waned percentage-wise, the absolute number of female matriculants rose steadily from 2006 to 2016, except in 2010. During that same period, the number of male matriculants declined only once, falling by 2% in 2016.

Similarly, the number of first-time female applicants decreased in only two of those years — 2008 and 2009. There also were fewer first-time male applicants in 2008, and again in 2016.

Table 2. Percentage of First-Time Medical School Applicants Who Are Women

Year Total First-Time Applicants (n) First-Time Female Applicants (n) Percentage of First-Time Female Applicants
2006 29,492 14,868 50.4
2007 31,891 15,966 50.0
2008 30,947 15,284 49.4
2009 31,001 15,183 49.0
2010 31,766 15,413 48.5
2011 32,587 15,913 48.8
2012 33,711 15,929 47.3
2013 35,688 17,022 47.7
2014 36,625 17,588 48.0
2015 38,398 18,698 48.7
2016 38,782 19,682 50.8

 

Diana Lautenberger, the AAMC's director of women in science and medicine, told Medscape Medical News that more research is needed to explain why gender balance got out of whack between 2006 and 2016. However, she suspects that the percentage of applicants who were female may have declined for several years because more and more women with undergraduate degrees in the life sciences were pursuing careers other than medicine.

"There are health professions such as physical therapy and dentistry," Lautenberger said. "Women can also choose to go into biomedical PhD programs."

Geoffrey Young, PhD, the senior director of student affairs and programs at the AAMC, thinks along the same lines — medicine has had to compete with other scientific fields for new female recruits. That trend may explain why medical schools saw enrollment tip toward men for a time, said Dr Young.

However, medical schools stepped up their game in response, he told Medscape Medical News. "They recommitted themselves to having a class of highly qualified women that was basically 50-50" compared with men.

The percentage rebound for female applicants and matriculants also reflects the growing number of high school and college programs that encourage women to pursue a career in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

These STEM pipeline programs for women "have been more concentrated in the last 5 years," said Lautenberger. "That's a huge contributor."

More information on medical school enrollment in 2016 is available on the AAMC website.

Follow Robert Lowes on Twitter @LowesRobert

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