How 'The Mindy Project' Misrepresents Female OB-GYNs

There are plenty of reasons to like Mindy Kaling's sitcom, but thus far, its portrayal of gender dynamics in healthcare hasn't been very realistic.

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There's a lot to admire about The Mindy Project. It's the brainchild of Mindy Kaling, the only woman of color to write, create and star in a prime-time sitcom on a major network. Her character, Dr. Mindy Lahiri, is a young OB-GYN in a small practice, a role likely inspired by her mother's profession. Female doctors are also unusual in the current TV landscape: According to an analysis of TV programming between 2006 and 2011, just a third of characters portrayed as doctors or health care administrators on prime time were women.

"I'm half-Indian, half-Filipino. So I just lit up when I saw the promo because I was like, that's me right there. She represents my demographic," said Portland area-based Dr. Stella Dantas, who said she hasn't yet gotten a chance to watch the show yet.

All too often, Dantas said, OB-GYNs are depicted either as delivering babies or giving abortions, with little attention given to the range of care they provide. "I think it's great to have a female OB-GYN to really demystify what our job is and all of the issues we deal with," she said.

How accurately Kaling's show will shine light on this rapidly changing profession, however, remains to be seen. On a recent episode, the head of the practice, Dr. Schulman (Stephen Tobolowsky), abruptly retires, prompting Lahiri and her remaining colleagues, Dr. Danny Castellano (Chris Messina) and Dr. Jeremy Reed (Ed Weeks), to scramble to retain patients. Lahiri manages to save the day, but only after her colleagues reluctantly agree to let her be an equal at the practice.

Being the only female doctor working at an OB-GYN practice is unusual these days. Not only are women making up a third of all physicians—up from just 9.7 percent a generation ago, roughly—three quarters of all new OB-GYNs are women, likely reversing the male two-to-one ratio in the profession within 20 years.

"When I started [in the 1990s], there were two to three women in a group of 16 at the practice. Today you would see the exact reverse," said Dr. Jennifer Gunter. Her specialty clinic in Northern California happens to be staffed entirely by women doctors, even though she hadn't intended to create an all-female practice.

Gunter points out that having more women in the OB-GYN field can be encouraging for young women entering the field looking for mentors. "It's very helpful to have someone you identify with," she said, though she adds that doesn't necessarily mean mentors need to be of the same gender. She hopes the progress in diversity among OB-GYNs can be replicated more broadly in other medical fields. "I think you have gender equality in medicine when you have gender equality across the board."

Though one study showed that gender played a minor role in choosing a physician, a 2010 study of male and female OB-GYNs in clerkships found that not only are men less likely to express interest in gynecology in the first place, they were more likely to report that their gender negatively affected their experience. Patients also more often refused to participate in interviews and physical examinations with a male practitioner. One man in the study complained that the "only small talk was about shopping." It's bizarre, then, that Kaling might choose to portray her show's practice as so male-dominated.

Lahiri, after all, seems to show a special compassion for her patients. She can't turn away an uninsured immigrant, even if it's not good for her career to take on so many uninsured patients; she jokes with a first time mother-to-be to ease tension. The rise of the female OB-GYN might be good for patients, given that research finds "female physicians were more likely to see female patients had longer visit durations, and were more likely to perform female prevention procedures and make some follow-up arrangements and referrals."

Other aspects of the show aren't as realistic. Dr. Meadow Good, a second-year fellow at the University of Texas-Southwest in Dallas, described the pilot episode—which shows Kaling's character getting drunk at a wedding then rushing to the hospital to deliver a baby—in horror. Such a scenario is unrealistic, Good said, because more practices are moving to on-call shifts, rather than requiring each doctor to personally deliver his or her patient's baby. It's a policy that allows better work-life balance.

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Kay Steiger is the managing editor of Raw Story.

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