Women in Medicine: Susan Rudd Bailey
At Texas A&M, we celebrate the American Medical Association’s Women in Medicine Month this September by highlighting a few of our extraordinary female researchers, scientists, physicians and students who are making meaningful contributions to medicine every day on our campuses and across the globe.
Susan Rudd Bailey, MD, a member of the College of Medicine’s charter class and an allergist in private practice in Fort Worth, is one of these remarkable women. She was the first female former student to become a regent for The Texas A&M University System and is a former president of the Texas Medical Association and currently serves as speaker of the American Medical Association’s House of Delegates. To help mark Women in Medicine Month, she answers some questions about the profession and her life.
Q: Why did you choose to become a physician?
A: I had terrible allergies and asthma as a child, and our allergists were almost a part of the family! I grew up in the shadow of the Texas Medical Center in Houston and had many friends whose fathers (sadly, it was always fathers) were physicians, and that was a comfortable environment for me even though there were none in my family. I was always interested in biology and chemistry, and working at McGovern Allergy Clinic through college and medical school breaks, it was just a natural progression for me. There was no “eureka” moment—I wanted to be a physician as long as I can remember. I had forgotten, but when I saw my President’s Endowed Scholar application for Texas A&M, I said then I wanted to be an allergist.
Q: What’s the greatest aspect of being a physician?
A: The patient-physician relationship is sacred; having the privilege of becoming part of a patient’s life and helping them with medical issues is an incredible honor.
Q: Why Texas A&M?
A: One of the reasons I applied to Texas A&M as an undergraduate was hearing about the new medical school. There were no Aggies in my family of Texas Christian University Horned Frogs. I was hoping the med school would open after my sophomore year in college and I could start then. I had great faith in the educational stature and integrity of Texas A&M. The Texas A&M College of Medicine did not open until the end of my junior year, and I had the honor of being the first woman accepted. That’s just because I was the only woman in the first group of five students, but it is still pretty awesome.
Q: What accomplishment do you consider to be the most significant of your career to date?
A: Oh, this is a tough question! Next year will be my 30th year in private practice. I have been president of the Texas Medical Association, speaker of the AMA House of Delegates, and the first female Texas A&M graduate to be a member of the Texas A&M University System Board of Regents. I voted for Bob Gates to become president of Texas A&M. I have been named a Distinguished Alumnus of Texas A&M University. They’re all most significant for me.
Q: How are you advocating for women’s health issues?
A: My advocacy for women’s health issues has been through organized medicine and working on issues like parental leave.
Q: What obstacles have you personally faced as a woman in medicine?
A: As a member of the charter class, our male colleagues were very proud and protective of us. There was no systemic culture of sexism (partly because being a new school there was no culture of anything but hope); if one of us was discriminated against in any way, the guys in the class were the first to defend us. But it was still hard having basically one female physician role model our first two years, and one during our clinical years. I remember having a crisis of confidence sometime during my third or fourth year where I needed encouragement that someone would eventually want to marry a physician like me and start a family together. That’s when I learned to look for mentorship among the women who were just a step or two ahead of me: when I was a student, it was the residents. When I was a resident, it was the fellows. When I was I my first year of practice, it was women in their second or third year of practice. I’ve never had a long-term mentor, but many situational ones along the way.
Q: What hurdles do we need to overcome for women in medicine?
A: Women in medicine are challenged to find the flexibility they need to pursue their life choices. If you want to be married, to have children, I believe flexibility is key. In our society, women have often been the buffer in men’s careers that allowed success and advancement only in rigid hierarchies. My personal opinion on why women hit the glass ceiling in management and academics is that these are rigid hierarchies that do not lend themselves to flexible and variable career paths. I chose private practice over academic medicine because I wanted and needed the flexibility to be a mother to my two sons. And even with a full-time nanny, I still sometimes needed a Plan B, Plan C and Plan D to make it through the day.
Women have outnumbered men in veterinary medicine, accounting and even law school, and I expected the percentage of women in medical school to progressively increase as the years have gone by. Women have comprised about two-thirds of veterinary school student bodies for years, and there are more women in veterinary practice now than men. But the ratio of women to men in medical school is still about 50-50 and has been for a long time. Why? Are the women who might choose medicine deciding to do something else? Or are men who might choose veterinary medicine, accounting and law now deciding to do something else? Should every profession have equal numbers of women and men? I don’t have the answers, but it will be fascinating to see how this plays out.
Q: Based on your own experience, what advice would you give?
A: Medicine is a magnificent calling, and anyone—female or male—who hears that calling should not be afraid to pursue it. Never, ever give up. You can have it all—but you probably can’t have it all at the same time.