I attended a function recently with some of the best and brightest female minds in medicine. After we discussed the medical topic at hand, conversation turned, as it often does, to gender issues in medicine. In a room of around twenty bright women, there was not a single dissenting voice to say that they had not found gender to be an issue during their careers.
As you may realise from reading this blog, I am a bit of a feminist. I believe that gender roles still very strongly define the lives of Australian women. I recently re-read Sheryl Sandberg’s fantastic book, ‘Lean In’. Actually, I listened to the audiobook because that’s how I read these days, it uses my travel time very well. I found myself nodding enthusiastically at the impostor syndrome, the tiara syndrome, the fact that men are chosen on potential, whilst women are chosen on past achievements. I realised the importance of how women act or perceive ourselves (and each other). Sheryl Sandberg is a COO for Facebook and a graduate of Harvard Business School but even in the humble auspices of medicine, without a ‘corporate ladder’, it still a man’s world out there.
The Impostor Syndrome is alive an well
I really think sometimes that I am here truly by accident. I wasn’t actually meant to get into medical school because I’m rubbish at maths. And well finishing medical school, I just pulled the wool over someone’s eyes. As for my specialty training, I am waiting for them to call me up and ask for it back, a mistake had been made. Turns out, impostor syndrome is everywhere in medicine. A quick chat to my female colleagues revealed an incredible amount of unfounded insecurity about their achievements. This is from a group of wonderful women who are bright and caring and ambitious. Truly, we have no reason to believe that we don’t deserve it, yet we are constantly acting like we don’t.
Sexism sells (us all short)
Just two days ago, a male physician approached me and said something along the lines of ‘Are they letting girls do cardiothoracic surgery now?’. He seemed to think this was hilarious and followed up by saying ‘That’s not sexist is it?’. A few years ago, I might have laughed off the comment or made a joke but not that day. That day, this man got schooled as to my qualification and the sexist tone of his remarks. His response? ‘Well good for you.’ Good for me? It’s bloody brilliant for me, actually. It’s bloody brilliant for anyone who has made any achievement, especially with short sighted remarks like that. While it may seem amusing or cheeky to say things like that all the time, it’s really neither. All that comes from that kind of remark is us both looking like idiots. Me for doing a ‘man’s job’ and you for your short-sightedness.
One thing Sandberg references in her book is that women don’t ask for promotions or needs to be met. Partly because we think we will be denied, or don’t deserve it or worse yet, judged for it. If you do need to ask for something, there is a right way to do it if you are a woman. Be humble, be community-minded. My female colleagues experiences seem to echo this. Rather than asking for a day off when heavily pregnant, one colleague pushed on through until the late stages of pregnancy. When she finally asked for a day off or some leniency for the on-call roster, she was told ‘oh no, please don’t get upset!’ A male colleague who had a physical illness (not pregnancy) was given leniency on the on-call roster, days off, you name it.
Women are our own worst enemies
Everyone knows that if you put a whole bunch of women together, there’s too much oestrogen and things get catty. I don’t watch it, but I understand that is the premise for the Bachelor? Although they fight tooth and nail through hardship of being a female in a male dominated profession, not all women mentor their young female counterparts through the same positions. Women will make it father when we stop competing and comparing, whether it be the workplace or socially. Lift as you climb, ladies.
I think that we are all susceptible to subtle and sometimes unconscious expressions of gender bias. I am also saddened that in a room of professional and successful women, so many of us have experienced this. Nobody has the right to make us feel inferior for who we are, including ourselves. I can’t way for the day when we have equity and strong female role models are not such an endangered species. The #ILookLikeASurgeon and #ThisIsWhatWeLookLike campaigns are already making so much ground in shattering stereotypes and providing inspiration the world over.
Medicine is a man’s world baby. And it’s a about time we changed that.