Put Aside Your Stethoscope & Listen to Women’s Pain

It was sudden, debilitating pain that would come out of the blue. It just kept getting worse. Eventually, I ended up in hospital.

The emergency room doctor sent me home with no leads on the cause of my pain. He told me to follow up with my primary care physician, and so I made an appointment.

As I sat in my lovely exam gown waiting, my mind went to dark places about what this pain could possibly be. “I really hope the doctor will have some thoughts on this,” I thought. “I hope he’ll be able to reassure me somehow.”

He didn’t. Instead, he asked me two questions and mumbled something while scribbling on his prescription pad. He shoved the paper in my face and told me to pick it up at the pharmacy.

Before I had time to decipher the handwriting, he was gone. Securing the back of my gown with one hand, I jumped off the exam table and chased him down the hallway.

I don’t embarrass easily, so I didn’t care that I was running around in a paper-thin gown while other patients gave me the side eye.

“I’m not done, I have questions” I said. Visibly annoyed, he followed me back into the exam room.

I hopped back onto the table while still holding my gown closed, impressed with my own acrobatic abilities. But I was even more impressed with my boldness. Where had it come from?

I was taught that doctors are powerful and mighty. They shouldn’t be questioned, only readily and blindly trusted.

Yet, here I was, demanding he take the time to answer my questions.

“What are the side effects?” I asked.
He smirked.
“There are very few. This is a very common medication for stomach upset.”
“Stomach upset? I’m having sharp pains. And they’re not going away.”
“You’ll be fine. Just take the medication as prescribed.”
“But what do you think is causing it?”
“Take the medicine and if it doesn’t work, call us.”
“Do you need to do any tests?”

“Tests?” he said. “We don’t need to do any tests. It’s probably just gas.”

This was useless. I’ve made plenty of excuses for doctors like him before: he’s busy, he’s stressed, maybe it’s the nature of the job.

The truth was, he just didn’t care.

At home, I began to read the little pamphlet inside the box of medication. Did it really state that caution should be taken with Asian patients due to higher risk of side effects?

But…I’m Asian?

I made an appointment with a new doctor. A woman. By now, the pain was worse and more frequent. I had done some research on my symptoms and was starting to think it it lined up with some form of dietary sensitivity. There was a pretty clear pattern and I’d been taking detailed notes.

The doctor was an older woman with a commanding presence. “She’ll listen,” I thought. “She’s a woman.”

Instead, she dismissed everything I shared and everything I asked. She attributed the skin breakouts around my elbows to a type of spider bite.

“So you think it’s a coincidence that I have these breakouts every time I eat bread?” I asked. She actually rolled her eyes. Finally, she agreed to test for celiac disease, saying it was nearly impossible that I had it.

The test was negative. I started to feel like a hypochondriac. Was I making these symptoms up?

I reminded myself that dismissal of symptoms are a reality of health care for women, and that I’d have to fight to be listened to.

In my appointment with a third doctor, she shook my hand warmly. But she scrunched up her eyebrows as I explained my symptoms and gluten theory. “Here it comes,” I thought. “She’s going to tell me I’m imagining this.”

The doctor scooted closer to me and said, “You know, there is a test for celiac disease but not gluten sensitivity. It sounds possible that your body is reacting negatively.” She paused, and then said, “My goodness, it must’ve been frustrating dealing with this.”

My mouth dropped open. She went on to share next steps and review possible treatment options. She even asked me about my thoughts on my symptoms. I walked out feeling informed and validated.

Listening is one of the most healing forms of medicine.

To know we’re not alone is a powerful form of treatment. Hear us. Believe us. Put aside your stethoscopes for a moment and listen with your hearts.

It’s Time to Confront Sexism in Medicine

I was told often at school that I was “very good at maths…for a girl.”

It’s been a long time since then. I believe that gender stereotypes in science and maths are a little less rife today. We cannot afford to become complacent though, as unconscious biases still exist.

Now, in my work as a doctor, antiquated comments crop up regularly.  Patients will mistake female doctors, residents and students for nurses. This happens regardless of how a female doctor introduces herself. The idea that a woman could only possibly be a nurse is clear evidence of the sexism that pervades society.

In spite of the steadily increasing proportion of women in medicine, the culture of medicine has not caught up. It’s well-documented that women are vastly underrepresented in leadership positions, such as full professors and department heads.

Stereotyping also exists within specialty programs. Many assume that the nature of the work demands detachment from emotions and an ability to withstand long hours and grueling procedures. To be tough, resilient and to soldier on have traditionally been thought of as male traits.

Even though the number of women taking up surgery has significantly risen in recent years, surgery is still very much a male-dominated field.

Sexism in medicine is deeply ingrained.

It is difficult for most young doctors to gain visibility and recognition. The situation is even more complex if you’re a young woman. Misogynist jokes and remarks about physical appearance or potential are obstacles that many have to deal with.

One challenge I have frequently faced is assumed incompetence. As a woman, I have had to fight for people to take me seriously. I hear doubts like ‘Can she provide medical care or take critical decisions when required?’ Often, a patient asks to see ‘the real doctor’. Translation? The male doctor.

There is no easy fix. On one side, you should not let any of the gender stereotypes thrown at you affect you. But neither can you ignore the bias.

The #MeToo movement has shined a light on the many places in our society where insidious or obvious sexism have long gone unremarked.

Medicine is no exception. There have been moments when I have been interrupted by an irrelevant comment and I have had to listen to sexist jokes. I have had to work hard to be heard and recognized. I’ve had to go the extra mile to earn the trust of patients, and even to identify with the scientific community.

I am learning that the most important thing is never to lose confidence. I try to stay focused on what’s important: doing great medicine.

What the medical profession needs is a drastic culture shift.

Sexist comments and inappropriate behavior in the medical field are evidence of a much larger problem. They show the insidious misogyny in our culture.

Doctors do not exist in a bubble. We are, to a large extent, products of our society. This includes people who make sexist jokes or commit sexual harassment. It also includes people who laugh along or accept sexism as normal. A shift this great requires courage and concerted efforts.

As one of the underrepresented populations in STEM, I believe I am making a difference simply by existing. I believe that it is really important to #balanceforbetter. We must put forward diverse, inclusive visions of the kind of future we would like medicine to create.

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Creating Equal Workplaces: My Recruitment Experience

In the past few years, many companies have implemented a 50/50 recruitment policy – 50% women and 50% men. This is an amazing improvement, since it shows that companies want to become equal employers and help women excel in industries where they have been historically underrepresented.  Even so, I ask myself whether there are ways we could make this policy more effective. Is there a better way of promoting gender equality in recruitment?

When I started applying for internships last year, I was impressed by all that was being done to ensure equality. Companies in male-dominated industries such as tech and finance had several programmes in place to inspire women to apply for their jobs. Actually, there were often more opportunities for me than for my male counterparts at university.

During my applications, companies hailed diversity and emphasised how much better they would perform if their workforce was not so streamlined. Many firms published yearly reports on gender diversity and pay differences, and some even boasted a 50/50 policy that had finally been fulfilled during that recruitment year.

However, people started asking questions. If you recruit 50% men and 50% women – will you really be hiring the best people? Is diversity more important than meritocracy? And I see where they come from. This top-down approach doesn’t deal with the root of the problem – why do women and men apply to different jobs in the first place? How can a company help solve this problem?

I have attended several recruitment sessions, some of them tailored for women. All of them displayed charts and numbers of how equal they had become. The workplace is now full of women, they said. But I asked myself, why is it only men giving the presentations? If there are plenty of qualified women at this company, surely they should be the ones attending university events for female graduates?

I believe that gender roles live on because we keep enforcing them. If I never see my mom fixing the car or my dad cooking when I am young, I am more likely to enforce the same roles in my home when I grow up. Likewise, if I never see women represent a tech company, investment bank or a political party, I am far less likely to see myself doing so in the future.

I once attended a women’s recruitment event where all of the speakers were women. There were about 50 students attending, all female, and most of the day was spent discussing women in the workplace. At one point, one of the attendees raised her hand and asked about meritocracy. “It is amazing that you do these events,” she said, “but how do you ensure that you still hire the best, most qualified people?” The speaker replied that meritocracy was very important to them – a principle they would never abandon.

But when I looked around the room, I saw only women. And I knew that the company did not plan to host a ‘men’s recruitment event’ – imagine the questions they would be asked if they did! So how can they claim to be hiring the very best people, when clearly women had a much better chance of securing an interview?

Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of women out there who are equally qualified, and many times even more qualified, than their male competitors, and often women shy away from applying while men tend to exaggerate their competencies and achievements.

But women deserve to be offered jobs based on their merit, not just their gender. That’s why we need to know that we were actually the best candidate for the position we’re offered, and that we are not just there because of a diversity programme. Our male colleagues will never respect us if they don’t think we deserve to be there in the first place, we won’t feel confident, and the situation will become even worse. It is incredibly important to find a balance between diversity and meritocracy in recruitment processes.

There are several ways of achieving a more equal workplace. One of the solutions might be 50/50 recruitment policies – after all, more women are entering the tech and finance industries than ever before and we will hopefully soon see a more equal gender division across company hierarchies.

But until then, I believe that there are several other ways we can encourage women to apply for the jobs where they will thrive the most. One is showcasing female role models – mentors, presentations and workshops are very effective in reaching out to students and establishing professional connections between talented women. Another is adopting gender-blind recruitment processes. Many companies have started using video interviews without a human interviewer – algorithms help determine who the best candidates are without a gender-biased lens.

There is, of course, the problem of men and women demonstrating different personality traits that are deemed suitable for different kinds of jobs, but that’s something to be dealt with much earlier in life than in graduate interviews. By screening CVs and conducting initial interviews without knowing applicants’ gender, we might end up with completely different recruits than through the traditional process.

And lastly, us women need to know that we are able. We need to show how qualified we are and dare to brag a little. The workspace is competitive, and in order to succeed, we need to be that way too.

Sometimes we will be faced with a gender-biased recruiter, and when that happens, we just need to prove why they are wrong. Hopefully, we can create a more equal workplace for our daughters, where they don’t need to attend all-female events to stand the same chance as their brothers of securing their dream job. And at that point, we will know we have succeeded.

5 Ways to Build a Tech Career

There have been more technology innovations in the last two centuries than over the last 5,000 years combined, and yet regardless of all the advancements – from AI chatbots, driverless cars and even using drones for home delivery – we are still hearing about the underrepresentation of women in the technology sector

According to Mashable, in 2013, only 18% of computer science graduates in the U.S. were women. Professionally, women make up only 29% of the science and engineering workforce. A recent study found that gender stereotypes around STEM can affect girls as young as age six.

It’s mind-boggling that in this digital age it still feels like we haven’t made much progress with women in STEM. But rather than feeling frustrated, I advocate that a better attitude is to think, “what am I going to do about it?”.

After years of battling with this issue in the digital sector, and feeling my confidence dip and slide, I feel that the worst thing we can do is focus too much on the views others feed us. We’re more connected to other people now than ever before and, with our current behaviour of consuming news, certain mainstream narratives can really frames our mindsets. Regular tech news about men inventing and creating are presented as the norm. After a while it’s easy to believe the subtext: STEM is for men.

I’m advocating for change starting at the individual level. From my experience in digital tech and programming – it works. If you’re interested and want to get involved, then don’t listen to what others say. Ignore the negative noise and instead, pay more attention to strengthening your own interests. We must be proactive and empower ourselves, because waiting to be empowered just isn’t going to work.

So how can you achieve this self-empowerment? No matter your age, background or experience, check out these top tips to unlock your potential:

  1. Age is no barrier but commitment is key.

    Tech is open to everyone. You don’t have to be a millennial to get involved. If you have previous working experience and skills, these can be transferred into a new role within the tech sector. All you need is passion and commitment to a clear idea. Check out Masako Wakamiya’s app this 81-year-old woman learnt to code Apple’s Swift programming language from a younger friend via Skype and Facebook messenger.

  2. Embrace failures.

    This group of students participated in a 15-hour hackathon but encountered a lot of stumbles, accidents and errors within the short deadline. They eventually pulled it together and went on to win first place with their 3D printed device which translates printed text into Braille.

  3. Make, be, do.

    There are loads of great (free) online programming courses to help you get started. But the crux of any self-taught journey is that you have to put your skills in practice. You have to actually do something. Try building new things, over and over. If you’re in the right industry then you’ll be fuelled by desire to keep trying. Remember, think of yourself as a coder, not a girl who codes! 

  4. Sharing is caring.

    Coding together with friends or in a team can make your learning experience more enjoyable and expose you to a wide range of ideas you might not have considered on your own. Check out Meetup.com to find events happening in your neighbourhood. Even better, if you have the opportunity, why not help others into coding too and grow the community.  As they say, ‘to teach is to learn twice over’!

  5. Stay curious.

    Remember that tech is constantly evolving and programming languages change. Read widely, listen to podcasts, and experience as many coding events as you can. The ability to self-teach is already a critical skill that many tech startups look for, so don’t be left behind!

As Reshua Saujani – founder of Girls Who Code – says, there’ll be 1.4 million jobs in computer science in 2020. Girls are currently on track to hold just 3% of them.

We have to change this reality, and we have to change it now. We’re living in a digital age and headed towards an even greater tech-powered future. Of course, it can seem like there a million reasons why you shouldn’t get into tech, or can’t. But as long as you want to, then that one reason to start is all you need.