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.

Like this post? Try these…

Women Inspire: Dr. Priscilla Joseph

This post is the fourth in a series of interviews from women and girls at the Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation (GPHC) in Georgetown, Guyana.

I’m here in Georgetown, Guyana to conduct interviews with inspiring women and girls and to listen to their stories. Recently, I met Dr. Priscilla Joseph, 30, in the GPHC emergency department. A role model for girls around the world, Priscilla filled me in on why she wanted to become a doctor and who inspires her.

What made you interested in becoming a doctor?

A: I wanted to be a doctor because I love helping people. My parents were also a great influence in my life because they recognized my interest and wholeheartedly supported and emphasized the importance of education in life – but particularly in order to become a nurse.

What is your favorite part about being a doctor?

A: In my opinion, seeing the successful health outcomes and seeing patients survive traumatic accidents and illness is the greatest part about being a doctor.

Who inspires you and why?

A: When I was younger, I read the book Gifted Hands by Ben Carson. Carson is a neurosurgeon and grew up in poverty. When he was young, he never thought success was attainable, but he continued to persevere and was determined to prove himself wrong. Eventually, he became the first doctor to separate Siamese twins. It just goes to show that if you’re disciplined in your passion, you can do anything.

Why is women’s health important to you?

“By working with [youths], I hope to inspire them to become whatever they want to be – and I’m proud of that.”

A: When women have sexual and reproductive health problems, that negatively influences their outlook on life. Not having the choice to choose whether or not to have a baby and not being able to be reproductive are two very different things.

What are some challenges you have faced?

A: Some patients will never accept the fact that a woman is their doctor. This is really annoying. Patients will call you ‘nurse’ and all you can do is correct them or ignore them and continue working. Also, financial restraints are always challenging. I often pull more shifts for the extra money.

What is the one thing you’re most proud of in your career or in life?

A: I can be a great influence to patients and youths. Besides being a doctor, I also work with youth groups in more rural areas. For them, it is uncommon to meet and know doctors, especially female doctors. By working with them, I hope to inspire them to become whatever they want to be – and I’m proud of that.

What advice would you give to young women and girls who want to make a difference?

A: You must find your passion and do your best at what you love.

Women Inspire: Romalia Black

This post is the third in a series of interviews from women and girls at the Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation (GPHC) in Georgetown, Guyana.

I’m here in Georgetown, Guyana to conduct interviews with inspiring women and girls and to listen to their stories. Recently, I met Nurse Romalia Black in the GPHC emergency department. She graciously shared with me her story, her ideas, and her passions.

What made you interested in becoming a nurse?

A: When I was 7 years old, my grandfather suffered a stroke and I helped care for him alongside my family. I discovered I really enjoyed caring for him and making him feel better. A few years later, my friend fell ill with a serious infection. It was at that point that I knew I wanted to be a nurse so I could help care for people my entire life.

What is your favorite part about being a nurse?

A: I love to see people get well and being able to help and care for them.

Who inspires you and why?

A: I’m inspired by Dr. Gwen Frazer Tinnie, my teacher when I was a university student. Dr. Tinnie always went the extra mile not only for her students, but for her patients as well. Approachable and eager to answer our questions, Dr. Tinnie only wanted the best for her students – as well as her patients – staying after hours if necessary.

What is the one thing you’re most proud of in your career or in life?

“Women must stand up and say ‘Hey, I matter!’”

A: I’m extremely proud of my academic achievements and my family. When I went to university, I was pregnant and also worked a part-time job on the side. Now, I have two wonderful children and a successful career. I am proud that I did all that and have achieved where I am today.

What are some challenges you have faced in either your career or your life?

A: It is difficult to be a working mom, particularly at a hospital in a low-income setting. As a nurse, I strive to provide the highest quality patient care. However, when resources are unavailable or limited, I often must improvise and find different ways to provide the best possible patient care. When I think about what’s best for my family and what I want my children to achieve, it makes all the hard work worthwhile.

Why is women’s health important to you?

A: When women learn to respect and stand up for themselves, cases of domestic violence, abuse, and HIV/AIDS will decrease, improving women’s health and the economy simultaneously. Women must stand up and say ‘Hey, I matter!’

What advice would you give to young women and girls who want to make a difference?

A: If you love it, do it. Don’t begin on a career path just for the money. If you do, obstacles and challenges will pop up and irritate you. Nursing is hard work – it’s not easy. If you’re passionate about being a nurse and caring for others, do it. Do what you think is best for you and not what is best for somebody else.

Women Inspire: Kennesia Pellew

This post is the first in a series of interviews from women and girls at the Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation (GPHC) in Georgetown, Guyana.

I’m here in Georgetown, Guyana to conduct interviews with inspiring women and girls and to listen to their stories. Last week, I met Kennesia Pellew, a 21-year-old nursing student, while she was working in the emergency department at GPHC. From just the few minutes I spoke with her, I could tell Kennesia was extremely passionate about her work, her dreams, and her passions.

What made you interested in becoming a nurse?

A: I wanted to make a difference in a person’s quality of health on an everyday basis.

What is your favorite part about being a nurse?

A: I love being around children. Before I went to nursing school, I was a teacher for two years. I love helping children feel better, particularly in critical cases. Now, I am able to help and have the skills and ability to make kids feel better.

Who inspires you and why?

“I don’t like to focus on the challenges. They are there, but I focus on finding ways around them.”

A: My mother inspires me. Even though she doesn’t have a lot of money or time, she always finds a way to get the job done, whatever that job may be.

Why is women’s health important to you?

A: I think women’s health should be important to everyone! Women inspire the world. They are the ringleaders of developing our future generations.

What are some challenges you have faced?

A: I don’t like to focus on the challenges. They are there, but I focus on finding ways around them. I’ll do anything to reach my goals – including staying up late to study!

What is the one thing you’re most proud of in your career or in life?

A: I’m very proud of my academics. I plan to finish nursing school next year and will then continue my studies at the University of Guyana.