More Than a Cover - a Challenge to Check Assumptions

Dr. Coleman and fellow trauma surgeons recreate the April 3 cover of The New Yorker magazine.
Dr. Coleman and fellow trauma surgeons recreate the April 3 cover of The New Yorker magazine.

On April 3rd, the cover of The New Yorker depicted four female members of a surgical team, from the perspective of a patient, about to go to under anesthesia. Since then, hundreds of female surgeons across the world, myself included, have recreated this photo.

Why? Why has this particular cover inspired so many women and men? It is because this photo is about much more than the fact that yes, women can be surgeons. It is about checking assumptions... which shouldn’t stop at the operating room door.

I was personally inspired to participate in the #NYerORCoverChallenge for two reasons. The first reason is clearly from the perspective as a female surgeon; I am committed to people understanding the only two parts of a surgeon that matter are the hands and the heart - the hands that skillfully move through your body and the heart that cares about your operation as much as you do. The second, and bigger reason, is because of what it represents on a much larger scale: What you assume a certain person (in this case, a surgeon) should look like and what that person actually looks like are often two very different things.

We make assumptions every day. We assume when we leave our houses in the morning and drive to work that we’ll actually make it to work. We assume the chair we are about to sit in won’t collapse, etc., etc. We all make these assumptions every day, and they’re based on both prior experiences and unconscious bias. The majority of these assumptions, like the chair example, aren’t malicious. But when these assumptions carry over to people, they can be harmful.

For example, let’s say every surgeon you have met in your life is male and every nurse you have met is female. Therefore, when a male walks into the examination room you mistake him for the surgeon when he is, in fact, your nurse. This doesn’t make you a bad person, again, a good portion of this is unconsciously done. But this is where we need to raise our unconscious to the conscious and actively check our assumptions. Because we ALL have them. These assumptions, and our resultant actions, are how we propagate stereotypes and prejudice even while we scream at the top of our lungs we don’t have them. This is how we unconsciously send messages to our children and young people that women shouldn’t be surgeons because we don’t expect them to be, and that a person’s appearance, race, or gender should dictate who they are and what they become. In the same way we should encourage our girls that a career in medicine is as open to them as careers in teaching and nursing, we should give every person we meet the chance to be who they are, not what we think they should be.

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