Reflections on Change: Pennsylvania Physicians Recall Women’s Progress in Medicine

Note: September is Women in Medicine Month. To celebrate, the Pennsylvania Medical Society will feature the stories of Pennsylvania women physicians who have made a difference in their profession. Email us at to tell us about a remarkable female physician you would like us to profile.

Perseverance. Gumption. Drive.

No single gender holds the keys to success in medicine, as women physicians have proved. In recent decades, women have fought challenges but also found acceptance, say three experienced Pennsylvania physicians.

For Women in Medicine Month, they reflected on the paths to leadership, the contributions women have made to Pennsylvania medicine, and future prospects for an increasingly diverse corps of top-flight doctors.

Support and Determination

Influences matter, but so does an inherent drive to serve. Barbara E. Barnes, MD, MS, had a seventh-grade teacher who suggested she consider a career in medicine. Though no one in her family had gone to college, the idea didn’t seem far-fetched. Today, Dr. Barnes is Vice President of Contracts, Grants, Intellectual Property, and Continuing Medical Education for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

“My family was very supportive,” she says. “I had a series of subsequent teachers and professors who were very encouraging.”

Virginia Ettinger Hall, MD, FACOG, FACP, practices obstetrics and gynecology with Penn State Hershey. She decided in sixth grade to attend medical school but, like Dr. Barnes, often heard that she should become a nurse.

When she and other female classmates comprised 10 percent of her medical school class, they were told there’d been a mistake – “We didn’t mean to take that many women” – but she rose to become Harrisburg Hospital’s first female chief resident in internal medicine.

“I just liked people, and I liked science, and I thought this was a great way of putting them together,” she says.

Gwendolyn A. Poles, DO, served 23 years in roles spanning clinical practice in underserved communities, health policy, quality improvement, and leadership divisions in various settings. At age 3, she announced that she would be “a missionary surgery doctor,” despite the lack of media influences that would have planted such a lofty title into the head of a female, African-American toddler.

In her college years, Poles encountered “significant racism and sexism.” Those struggles prepared her to deal with obstacles in the medical field.

“I had already figured out how to cope with it,” she says. “Some people would have gone further with their biases, but I knew how to shut it down.”

Taking Leadership Roles

For women in medicine, leadership happens when preparation meets opportunity.

Out of medical school, Dr. Barnes sought “something that I could grow into.”

She combined clinical care with her increasing interest in administration, finally pursuing a master’s degree in health administration to gain credentials and formal education. When UPMC called, looking for someone to strengthen relations with community hospitals and physicians, she was ready to take the risk, and her responsibilities have grown.

“I’m a person who needs to be continuously challenged and continue to learn and develop,” she says.

Dr. Hall was once told that she “took up a space that should have been given to a man,” but she never shied from leadership. An ability to spot trends often put her in the right place at the right time, including in 1996, when her private practice became the first purchased by Penn State Hershey.

“Women have to be twice as good to be as good as,” Dr. Hall says. “When we have very highly competent women in leadership positions, that will convince the guys. Each person has to be changed one person at a time.”

Dr. Hall, Dr. Poles, and Dr. Barnes also honed their leadership skills through affiliation with the Pennsylvania Medical Society and other medical organizations. They networked with colleagues, learned how to work with people from different backgrounds, and helped build the medical profession’s voice in legislative affairs.

“As medicine has changed so much, it really demonstrates the value of advocating for physicians when physicians can’t do it for themselves,” says Dr. Poles, a past president of Dauphin County Medical Society.

Dealing with Discrimination

Discrimination against female physicians was not always blatant, says Dr. Barnes, but she “came to understand some of the perceptions of women.” To find her way around it, she studied the leadership styles of other women and formulated her own style that responded to changing environments, sometimes soft-pedaling the “hard-nosed and corporate” approach when the setting didn’t warrant it.

Discrimination lingers, says Dr. Poles, but for women, “there has been progress. The number of women is obviously greater than when I entered medicine, and in terms of specialties, women have broken through.”

Dr. Hall credits her stubborn nature with breaking down barriers.

“I know who I am,” she says. “When God closes a door, he opens a window, and I’ve been a window climber for many years.”

Paving the Way

Physicians of both genders bring compassion and caring to the profession, these leaders in medicine agree. Still, women have introduced communications and listening skills that “changed the culture of medicine in a positive way,” says Dr. Poles. “My personal belief is that some of that has evolved from women being in the field.”

Successful women in medicine can name the mentors who helped them scale career ladders, and they are happy to give back.

“As long you want to be a good physician, I’ll take you under my wing,” says Dr. Hall.

In addition to mentoring younger UPMC faculty, Dr. Barnes works with community organizations that expand the horizons of disadvantaged youth and introduce African-American boys to medical careers. Just as women needed help tearing down barriers, students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds need role models and guidance in order to bring diversity and fresh talent into medicine, she says. With an “extreme lack of African-American male physicians, we need to be extremely proactive in ensuring that our health professionals are mirroring demographics in their communities.”

In the meantime, Dr. Barnes sees “a great future for women in medicine.”

“It’s like any other kind of diversity,” she says. “When you get a critical mass, the differences begin to fade. Instead of looking at somebody being a woman physician, you look at them as a physician.”