There is a famous (and old) “riddle” that goes something like this:
A man and his son are driving down the road and they are in a bad car crash. The father dies instantly. The boy is taken to the hospital where he is immediately rushed to surgery, but the surgeon looks down and says "I can't perform this surgery, he's my son!"
The riddle asks… “how is this possible?”
I will give you a second to think of the possible answers.
If you answered the father was gay, or the child had a step-father who was a surgeon, or the child was switched at birth, or even that the wife cheated, you are wrong, but you are not alone. Only 15% of children and 14% of college students got the right answer. Even 78% of “self-described feminists” were wrong. In 2014.
The real answer, of course, is that the surgeon is the patient’s mother!
Some of you with exposure to female doctors (or even being one yourself) might be screaming at me right now and saying “duh! of course it was the mother!” In fact, experience with successful females has been found to help shape gender schema, or the way in which we explain the world we live. Like you, my world is shaped by what I know. Because of my “gender woke bubble”, it never really occurred to me until recently that sexism might still exist in medicine. This might be naïve given all of the recent data to the contrary, but I come from a family of fierce women doctors and have been mentored at every stage of my young career by other powerful and inspiring women. Additionally, my medical school class was about half women (on par with overall trends of about 47%). In my world, it did not seem like being a woman in medicine was anything different. If anything, it felt like we were taking over.
Perhaps I never then saw a need to define myself as a feminist and rarely referred to myself as a “female-doctor” and not just a “doctor”. I wondered if my short-sighted understanding was really just a nod to the medical culture itself which was slowly indoctrinating me. I thought about times where I laughed off not being identified as the doctor in the room, or being told “it must be high school visit day” simply because I looked young. Should my response, instead, have been anger? I also began to question if I was unknowingly discriminating against other women doctors as a result. The phrases “I can’t believe she is pregnant” or “I can’t believe she went through all that training and won’t practice medicine full time” reverberate in my head as I write this. As I opened my twitter and saw #Ilooklikeasurgeon, or read the New Yorker and saw the viral response to the all female operating room cover, it was like being repeatedly hit over the head with just how limited my own experiences might be. In that moment, I opened my Facebook, turned to my physician Facebook groups (Physician Women for Democratic Principles and Psychiatry Network) and simply asked for examples of their experience of gender in medicine.
Their response....was mind blowing. What started as a simple question led to over 500 comments, stories, and discussion points that went on for weeks. With every disclosure, my limited world grew a little more, as did my feminism. It was clear that sexism was the silent experience for most women physicians and they just wanted someone to hear them.
Well, thanks to the Huffpost and its’ editors, they will finally have their chance.
In this collection of first-person narratives (spread over the next few weeks), you will read what it is still truly like for women as doctors. You will see stories of frank harassment, but also of microaggressions. You will read narratives of motherhood, of mentorship, and what makes female physician hood unique. You might feel joy, or sadness, or anger, and if if we did our job right, maybe even a little uncomfortable. In the end, I hope by sharing their stories they open your eyes a little more like they did mine. Maybe you will pause before thinking your female doctor is not your doctor, or asking her to take your lunch tray. Maybe you will keep your comments about her looks or pregnancy to yourself, or better yet, not even have them. You might even realize that not noticing these things as I did makes you part of the problem.
With 66% of women physicians experiencing gender discrimination, we can’t really ignore it. At least for me, I am going to climb out of my bubble (or better yet pop it) and try a little harder to be part of the solution. After all, women helping women (and not tearing them down) is how we rise to make a difference. Oh, and did I mention we might actually be better doctors too???
Links to the pieces in this collection:
Check back here for other’s narratives as they are posted.