Breaking down the bias: the portrayals of women in medicine in films

Science and Health

More than half of medical students and more than 45% of doctors in Israel and many other countries are women. Yet a US study has found that fewer than 20% of physicians’ roles in movies are portrayed by females, giving a skewed view of the profession.

In the 2009 film Gifted Hands, which was based on a true story, the audience follows black neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson as he successfully performs three risky surgeries, earning praise from the media and medical community. This movie was not only a hit with critics and audiences, but it also inspired Assistant Prof. Bismarck Christian Odei, a radiation oncologist at the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah, to investigate.

“Seeing a physician who looked like me, portrayed positively and successfully on screen, was both inspiring and transformative for me,” he said. “On a larger scale, seeing a diverse demographic of physicians in the media can influence the public and beckon a wider group of the rising generation towards medicine.” 

Odei is now a prostate cancer specialist and he continues to advocate for diversity in medicine. This passion pushed him to lead a team of researchers to investigate the representation of women in medicine in films. The Huntsman Cancer Institute is the official cancer center of the state and the only National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center in the area. It’s considered a world leader in scientific discovery with unsurpassed cancer care. 

His study has just been published in the prestigious journal JAMA Internal Medicine under the title “Portrayal of Women as Physicians in Movies, 1990-2020.” 

Female doctor looking at x ray film of patient head injury while working with another doctor at the hospital. Medical healthcare staff and doctor service. (credit: INGIMAGE)

Women doctors are under-represented in film

He and his colleagues referenced physicians in their plot summaries, keywords, and credits and counted the gender of the characters who were physicians, as well as the race, ethnicity, and age of the character. 

Out of the 1,226 movies with 2,295 characters that were physicians, only 18% were women, while 81.4% were men. Women have been historically underrepresented in professional roles in movies, continuing to perpetuate gender biases. While the percentage of women physicians portrayed in films increased each decade by about two percent every 10 years, most physicians in movies are still men, when in fact, these numbers are much different. 


This research also showed that among G and PG movies, only 21% of the 2,295 movies portrayed at least one female physician. Those watching these movies, typically younger and more impressionable viewers, rarely see women as physicians. 

In addition, the study found that there is even less portrayal of physicians in historically underrepresented groups in cinema. These results help paint a picture of why some people may feel out of place as doctors – a phenomenon known as “imposter syndrome.” 

“There are stereotypical views of what a physician is supposed to look like due to historical reasons and the messaging surrounding these realities,” Odei noted. “When someone falls outside the boundaries of these stereotypical portrayals of physicians, they may feel out of place and wonder if they belong.” 

The portrayal of women in medicine in films is important as it not only reflects the perception of women in society but also helps shape attitudes in future generations, he stressed. “We felt that most movies could still maintain the integrity of the plot and scenes if female physicians were substituted in for their male counterparts,” he went on.  “This further underscores the crucial role of screenwriters in enhancing the portrayal of women in film. Seeing women positively portrayed as physicians will help normalize these roles for future generations of budding scientists interested in medicine as a career and for those who are seeking treatment as a patient.”

In medicine, having patients have a sense of confidence in a competent physician, is critical, said Odei. “This is particularly true in oncology when we are often dealing with a life and death situation. You want the patients to feel that they’re in safe hands. So, their perception of what safe hands look like is critical. 

Odei and his team hope to continue researching the impact of media representation of physicians on patients and also to capture how other underrepresented subgroups are being portrayed in the media.