Time’s Up for Sexism in Medicine

I would venture to say that medicine is one of the fields with the most blatant, widespread sexism in the workplace. In watching women in Hollywood stand up to the injustices that women in their industry face, I feel empowered to share the struggles that female physicians face. I wrote about this several months ago but deleted my post in the setting of fellowship interviews as I was concerned that it would seem too controversial or that I would seem as if I were complaining.

I grew up believing that I could be anything and anyone I wanted to be. I excelled in many aspects of life including academics. However, once I entered medicine, I encountered on an almost daily basis people who wanted to strip me of my hard-earned title. Administrative assistants and operators from other institutions on the phone who ask me what my first name is after I introduce myself as “Dr. Villasante.” Not because they want to write my full name but because they want to only write and address me by my first name. Patients who cannot understand that I am a physician even when I introduce myself as such. Who confuse the male nurse as the doctor and me as the nurse.

Our society has such deeply ingrained assumptions that “doctors are male” and “doctors are authoritative” and “women are not authoritative” and “women cannot be doctors.”

Here are some examples.

-We were discharging a patient, Ms. A, on a specialty service. We were talking to Ms. A about setting up follow-up, and she stated “I would like to fellow up with that girl from yesterday. She’s not a doctor though, the therapist that was here.” In fact, she was referring to Dr. J. Our current (male) attending Dr. Y explained that Dr. J was one of his colleague attendings in that specialty and that she had, in fact, trained at this fine institution and was an excellent doctor.

-At a community hospital that we rotate at, I was rounding with Dr. H, a petite blonde female attending. She had laser-sharp precision and was very efficient. We were visiting one of our patients and had a whole conversation with her about her medical care. As we were about the leave the room, she asked, “so when’s the doctor coming to see me?”

-Patient who thought I was his interpreter rather than his doctor, despite the fact that I was the physician who was most involved in his care and made the most management decisions for him.

-It feels that patients and families are much more likely to ask me for directions, some ginger ale, or help to the bathroom than they are of my male colleagues.

-“Can you close the door on your way out, Miss?”

-“Thanks ladies!”

-“As I was telling the girls…”

“Sure, sweetheart.”

“Good morning Doctress”—one of my personal favorites. A well-intentioned but odd greeting a received daily from a maintenance employee at the Veteran’s Hospital my intern year. I just smiled and nodded back.

“Do you have a boyfriend?” – asked by an attending subspecialty surgeon in the middle of the OR during medical school. [A statement like this is not just sexisim but sexual harrassment.]

-“All of my clinic patients are crazy. That’s because I have 70% female patients,” said by a [female] resident physician, overheard a few years ago. “It is hard for me to hear them complain. Just put your big girl pants on already,” she added.

These are just a few examples. These occurrences have become so commonplace for me that I mostly forget them and keep going. I can recall some positive comments as well, like the 96yo woman who told me I was “wonderful” and that she felt so proud that there were so many young women in medicine. Better yet, often gender does not come up at all.

Thinking back to grade school, I remember people being stumped by the following riddle: “A father brings his son into the hospital after they both got into a car accident. The surgeon sees the boy and says, ‘I cannot operate on this boy, as he is my son.’ How is this possible?” The surgeon is the stepfather? The grandfather? The biological father while the other is adoptive? No, the surgeon is the boy’s mother.

Yet, as recently as the summer between college and medical school I was at a party when a young man my age asked with doubt, “but do you really think a woman could be as good of a surgeon as a man?”

Though I encounter wonderful humans who make the daily grind a little bit brighter, from my co-residents to attendings to nurses to patients, I also encounter at least one message every day that says “your status as a female is incompatible with your status as a physician.” I do not blame the individual messengers as, for the most part, they are sending it unintentionally, and not maliciously. They have just been programmed to operate under certain assumptions, and they have not learned to override those assumptions. I am more frustrated with the system that programmed them and continues to program us. And I am hoping to change it.

We can do it