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…

Her male classmates weren’t thrilled about women engineers.

This blog post was originally posted on Upworthy.com as part of a project with Girls’ Globe, Upworthy and Johnson & Johnson.

When Aya Mouallem took her first software engineering class, she had a rude awakening: she wasn’t exactly welcome.

As one of two girls in the class of over 20 students, she felt out of place right away. And this was only made worse by the comments she’d hear from her male classmates.

“[They] said, ‘it’s no wonder there aren’t a lot of girls in [electrical and computer engineering] . . . because girls are bad at math.’ They casually mention[ed] phrases like, ‘we were happy without girls in this major,’” Aya recalls.

Unfortunately, comments like these weren’t exactly new for Aya.

She had been interested in STEM from a very young age. “I never really felt interested in playing with dolls as much as I loved to know how stuff worked,” she says. And while her immediate family had been supportive of her interests in STEM — calling her the ‘thinker’ in the family — she had faced a lot of sexism from other family members, acquaintances, classmates, and even staff at her university.

That didn’t hold her back, though. Since Aya’s parents encouraged her to ask questions and be curious, she kept pursuing her passion. When smartphones became available, for example, she eagerly explored how they worked and became her family’s go-to ‘tech support’.

But Aya knows that many girls don’t get that kind of encouragement.

“A lot of other girls were forbidden by their parents from pursuing ECE because it wasn’t ‘feminine’ by societal standards,” she explains.

Aya knew that, as a result, girls weren’t getting the same opportunities to explore technology as boys their age. For example, boys were more likely to be called to help change a lightbulb or to see how a car works, “but girls were supposed to stay busy with their dolls,” says Aya.

So girls who might have a knack for STEM were being discouraged from exploring a field they might otherwise be passionate about later in life.

“Their implications are very dangerous,” she explains. “There’s a lot to be done when it comes to raising awareness to gender inequality in STEM.”

That’s why in March 2017, Aya teamed up with Maya Moussa, another classmate studying computer engineering, to empower girls to explore STEM.

They created All Girls Code, a project that provides girls between the ages of 12 and 19 in Lebanon with access to STEM fields through mentorship programs and other opportunities.

 

“We wanted to give girls the opportunity to try hands-on STEM workshops before they have to choose a university major,” Aya says.

It wouldn’t be easy, though. At first, they struggled to get funding for the project. Since All Girls Code doesn’t generate revenue, it was hard to get the financial support that the project needed. So to get it off the ground, “we [first] reached out to the local community through our university, our phone contacts and people we’ve networked with at tech events,” she explains.

Luckily, their hard work paid off. They were able to get support from their university, the American University of Beirut, which provided a space for the workshops. Aya and Maya also recruited over 100 volunteers to support All Girls Code as instructors, graphic designers, photographers, moviemakers, and administrators.

Now in its second year, All Girls Code is continuing its mission with its flagship summer program, Tech Immersion.

The program focuses on three goals in particular: skills, exposure, and sisterhood.

For the development of technical skills, All Girls Code has created a curriculum that allows girls to use code to help improve health, the environment, and other fields.

In sponsoring hackathons, for example — events where the girls collaborate to create software or hardware for a specific purpose — they learn to apply their technical skills to solve real-world problems. These hackathons also provide girls with opportunities to learn how to pitch their ideas and network.

 

The girls are also given mentorship opportunities, working directly with women in the industry. Through the program, they’ve learned about Lebanese women entrepreneurs, the latest trends in tech and Silicon Valley, and which ‘tech titans’ in the industry they should be familiar with.

To ensure they’re reaching a diverse group of girls, all events by All Girls Code are free of charge.

“We’ve been proud to welcome girls from more than ten countries, including public school students, refugees, and private school students,” says Aya.

In a field dominated by men, Aya believes that sisterhood plays a critical role in the mission of All Girls Code.

“It was important for us to nurture this bonding between them over STEM, just like they would bond over dolls,” she explains. Working together to develop their ideas and participating in icebreakers are just some of the ways in which these girls are able to connect with each other.

 

That’s why Aya wants to expand All Girls Code to be worldwide, impacting an even greater number of girls. While over 200 girls have participated so far, she hopes that in the future, there will be thousands.

After all, it was the support of other women in the field that helped her find her way, too.

“When girls try tech together, they feel that they are not outsiders,”she says.And through her work at All Girls Code, she’s hopeful for a future in which girls in STEM never again feel out of place again.

Gabrielle Rocha Rios co-authored this post with Sam Dylan Finch.

What’s Holding Women Back in Engineering?

Although the topic of gender equality in engineering (and in STEM overall) is still common, and there is undoubtedly greater awareness of it, the problem is still far from being solved. Recently, there was an infographic published on the difficulties women face in scientific faculties, with a particular focus on engineering. There are several components that contribute to the gender gap in the field.

One such factor is the “stereotype threat”, as defined by Steele & Aronson in 1995. This occurs when one is afraid of confirming negative stereotypes about a particular social group (in this case that “girls are not meant to work in science”). This can have an impact on a student’s performance when taking an important test, for example.

Various American studies have shown how the environment plays a heavy role on pupils’ test results, preventing them from reaching their full potential when skin color or gender is emphasized.  This negative feedback loop is a vicious circle: when girls score lower on STEM tests, it can further discourage them, reinforcing the idea that the stereotype is true.

This might have its effect on their future as well. In the United States, for example, only 20% of engineering students are women. And this female under-representation is a global phenomenon. This suggests that by the time they reach their college applications, many women have lost interest in becoming an engineer, or think that the major is too difficult.

Confidence is a crucial factor for women when making decisions. A Hewlett Packard report quoted in several articles, including the Harvard Business Review, showed that while men apply for jobs when meeting 60% of the requirements, women have to meet 100% to feel confident enough to apply. If we assume the same applies for college applications, we can see how the stereotype threat can play a big role.

There have been initiatives to change the current situation. For those girls interested in learning more on the subject, there are countless articles and publications introducing female role models in STEM, one being “STEM Gems”, a book listing 44 women shining in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Another initiative worthy of mention is “Engineering is Elementary”, an organization that developed an engineering curriculum suitable for grades 1-5 with the hope of making kids familiar and more interested in engineering at a young age.

Nonetheless, the road ahead is long, and awareness of the issue is only the beginning. A problem this embedded in culture takes time to resolve as we need to change the most stubborn thing of all – our culture’s mindset. The mindset of the employers, young women and society in general. We can all contribute on a daily basis: let’s talk openly about the situation and encourage women and men to break the norm and lose the stereotypes still present.

A Smart Thing To Do: Data on Women in Higher Education & STEM

“When we talk about improving women’s lives, education is an issue that comes up over and over again as an equalizer, because when women and girls have access to an education, they can accomplish anything.” – United State of Women

But do all forms of education create equity where gender disparities are greatest? Although we need to work toward improving women’s and girls’ access to education on all levels, real disparities deepen in secondary and higher education environments around the world. Significant progress has been made as 2/3 of developing nations have achieved gender parity when it comes to access to primary education. Despite significant progress made on girls’ school enrollment in the past decade, 32 million girls of lower secondary school age were out of school in developing countries. The situation is worst for the poorest rural girls in South and West Asia: only 13% complete lower secondary school.

If we agree with UNICEF that educating girls is “both an intrinsic right and a critical lever to reaching other development objectives,” then advocating for a higher output of female university graduates and an equal presence of women in STEM fields should ultimately be the goal. So, why are so few women completing secondary and higher education studies and why are so few represented in STEM fields?

Adolescent girls attending secondary school, who would continue on with higher education, face many disrupting economic and social demands. This includes everything from household responsibilities, child labor, child marriage, caring for children, gender-based violence, and FGM. Challenges of marital and family obligations in secondary education years truly hinders young women’s opportunities to continue education at universities or in STEM fields. Recent estimates show that 1/3 of girls in the developing world are married before 18 and 1/3 give birth before age 20. Yet higher and secondary education helps prevent these issues: if all girls received a secondary education in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia, child marriage would drop by 64% from almost 2.9 million to just over 1 million.

In countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, formal or written threats to close girls’ schools have fueled gender motivated school attacks. In similar places, millions of young women often face verbal, physical, and sexual harassment should they aspire to study at higher learning institutions. Even those that don’t face direct physical threats are often hindered by deep social stigmas associated with women pursuing higher education. Universities in Africa continue to be male-dominated and women, especially those from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds, have a very low presence in these institutions.

Despite all these challenges, we know that secondary and higher education for women is:

  1. Lifesaving – If all women had a secondary education, child deaths would be cut in half, saving 3 million lives.
  2. Healthy – If all women had a secondary education, 12 million children would be saved from stunting from malnutrition.
  3. Safe – Almost 60% fewer girls would become pregnant under 17 years in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia if they all had a secondary education.
  4. Profitable – Education narrows pay gaps between men and women. In Pakistan, women with a primary education earn only 51% what men earn, but with a secondary education, they earn 70% what men earn. In Jordan, women with a primary education earn 53% what men earn, but with a secondary education, they earn 67% what men earn. More money in the hands of female workers, especially through careers in higher paying STEM fields, boosts economies and would bolster GDPs.
16601911779_c3f78e5b5b_b-1024x683
The Obama Administration supports more opportunities for girls in STEM fields. Here President Barack Obama is seen with young girls participating in a coding event.

In places like the United States and the EU – women are earning more secondary education certificates and college degrees than men. But despite progress, “women still occupy only 28% of STEM jobs and comprise just 37% of STEM college graduates” in the States. Numbers of women studying STEM fields peaked in early 2000s and now we have seen a decrease in many fields since 1991. For example, women made up 30% of US computer science bachelor degrees in 1991 and in 2011 only made up 17% of computer science graduates.

screen-shot-2016-11-16-at-10-52-46-am

In the EU, there are more women in STEM fields, but that doesn’t mean we have actually been able to remove the disparity there – just as many men are entering those fields of study and the gender gap has remained constant.

789px-tertiary_graduates_in_science2c_mathematics_and_computing_per_1_000_inhabitants_aged_20e2809329_years2c_eu-282c_2003e2809313_28c2b929_28number_per_1_000_inhabitants29_et15

“But what’s the point of girls overcoming so many barriers to get to school if they don’t learn anything?”
– Malala Yousafzai

If we are going to work hard for girls to be in school, then let’s work to assure that they are receiving a quality education that includes secondary and tertiary studies. Let’s be sure education allows girls to feel empowered to choose whatever fields most interest them and equips them to be active in all sectors to bring about change. Our pride in global efforts to reach girls with primary school needs to be overcome as we work to build women as leaders. Anything short of a full education, means disparities will still exist if women cannot be equipped to be considered equally educated and capable to lead alongside men.

“The problem of access lies at all levels, and perhaps is often ignored at the highest levels where we desperately need women doctors, scholars, engineers, scientists and thinkers.”
– Muhammad H. Zaman 

Without higher education, women will continue to be under-represented in leadership roles in society and decision making in all sectors. UN Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson, who launched the HeForShe movement said, “A good university is like a tiny utopia – it’s a miniature model of how the whole of society could look.” Change starts in higher education and with it women can have equal roles in business meetings, political cabinets, and research and design firms.

UN Women's HeForShe Campaign Special Event
Actress Emma Watson for the United Nations’ HeForShe campaign. Photo: UN Women.

Ultimately, pursuing higher education should never solely be about career. If it is only about career opportunities then we should clearly make vocational paths available to women and champion both sexes having equity in each. But if it is about opportunity, creativity, about including women in the processes of government, leadership, and any career field, then we need to champion higher education as a whole. Letting girls be smart, is a smart thing to do.

The percentages in the illustration refer to to following numbers and statistics:

  • If all girls had secondary education in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia, child marriage would fall by 64%, from almost 2.9 million to just over 1 million.
  • Although good progress has been made on girls’ school enrollment in the past decade, in developing countries 32 million girls of lower secondary school age were out of school. The situation for the poorest rural girls is dire: only 13% of the poorest rural adolescent girls in South and West Asia complete lower secondary school.
  • Almost 60% fewer girls would become pregnant under 17 years in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia if they all had a secondary education.
  • In the EU-28, of all university graduates in engineering, manufacturing and construction-related studies (second most common types of degrees in the EU), only 3.9% are female.
  • 12% of women in higher education are in in sciences and engineering vs. 24% of men. (http://www.lacs.ps/documentsShow.aspx?ATT_ID=7778 UN Women)
  • Numbers of women in STEM fields peaked in early 2000s and now we have seen a decrease in every field since 1991. For example, women made up 30% of computer science bachelor degrees in 1991 and in 2011 only make up 17% of computer science graduates.

Featured Illustration: Elina Tuomi