“If you were male, we would have assumed you could suture.”
The doctor had a bright smile on his face and, as always, was trying to be charming. I looked over to my friend to confirm I’d heard him correctly. She looked as astonished as I felt. Here was a young, intelligent and upcoming surgeon and he was telling us that our weeks of hard work hadn’t mattered; only our gender did.
By this point in time, we had put in more than 50 hours each week at the hospital. We had attended every surgical theater on offer, stood on our feet throughout the day following doctors, answered difficult questions, assisted in procedures, held up necrotic limbs, pulled back engorged intestines and sutured-up multiple abdomens. We would come home tired and then study for hours about the conditions we had seen in order to learn more the next day. But despite all of this, here we were sitting in a room, with a flirtatious male being told that I had “lost weight and looked good” and the fact that I didn’t have “a boyfriend after all this time is unbelievable”. Where was the mention of our hard work? Our clinical improvement? Our persistence? Our enthusiasm? Where was the advice for me as a student looking at a career in surgery? Where was the acknowledgment of us as future doctors? Where was all of this? It seems that after weeks of diligent study, only my changing figure and current relationship status were worthy of mention. That’s when it hit me – Welcome to the exciting world of being a female in medicine.
“After weeks of diligent study, only my changing figure and current relationship status were worthy of mention.”
As a fifth year medical student I am sad to say that I have seen, experienced and heard many scenarios echoing the themes of my most recent encounter. A woman walking through a hospital is often confused for a nurse, allied health professional or aide. While these jobs are integral to patient care and healthcare functioning, it highlights the fact that people often assume a female is not a doctor but the male next to her is. While on ward rounds, there are always patients who thank the males on the team by saying “Thanks doctor,” and then turn to the females and say “thanks girls.” When offering to administer needles or insert catheters, it’s not uncommon for patients to say “oh I got a pretty one,” while addressing the female medical student. These small yet frequent occurrences show how, on a daily basis, we women in medicine are not equated to our male counter parts.
Historically, there have been more male than female doctors. In the 1980s, only 25% of GPs and less than 1 in 6 specialists were women. However, fast forward to 2017 and females out number males in medical school 55% to 45% and dominate fields such as dermatology, pathology and family medicine. A 2017 JAMA study has even found that patients treated by female physicians have significantly lower mortality and readmission rates compared to those treated by male physicians. Yet, despite these achievements, female doctors are still paid ~ $20,000 less than their male counterparts and are woefully underrepresented in the areas of surgery and leadership. Even though preferences for specialty areas across male and female medical students are the same, fewer than 12.5% of hospitals have a female chief executive, less than 30% of medical schools have female deans and only 1 in 3 chief medical officers are female.
Female doctors are still paid ~ $20,000 less than their male counterparts and are woefully underrepresented in the areas of surgery and leadership
Most of the areas where women are poorly represented offer limited options for work flexibility and require years of training that coincide with the prime of our lives. However, I believe the barrier of “perceived credibility” also plays a large role in this gender gap. For example, after having had placed countless cannulas and done many sutures, a close friend of mine asked an anesthetist if she could place the IVC for a patient in theater. The doctor took one look at her, said that he’d prefer someone who actually knows what they are doing and reluctantly let her do it. Fast forward to the next patient, and a male student asked to do the IVC while admitting he had never done one before. For him, the doctor was happy to oblige and assisted throughout the procedure. It is frustrating and demoralizing to see how male students need only don scrubs, and suddenly they’re experienced and enthusiastic. It doesn’t matter if I have been standing for the past 2 hours waiting to assist in a surgery I had painstakingly studied about. You see, the male student who doesn’t know the first thing about lignocaine has a strong Y-chromosome that clearly makes him a better choice.
Women in medicine and surgery need to be taken as seriously as males; it is the only way to truly move forward. Treating us differently and placing less value on our capabilities alienates us and furthers the gender divide. In fact, lack of support and the presence of internalized bias discourages females from actively seeking out the careers they dream of. Medicine is a long, hard but rewarding road. It is exhilarating yet tiring and requires you to be your best even when you feel less than that. You see people at their top and you help them at their worst. Coming straight from high school, medicine is a degree that matures you quickly and gives you a wealth of experience in a few fleeting years. As a senior MBBS student standing on a precipice about to jump into a career as a doctor, I see a field that is bursting with opportunities. I am excited for what my future holds. But, this undeniable gender inequality scares me, angers me and saddens me. In this day and age women like me should not be made to feel our ovaries and mammaries make us less able to do surgeries. We should not be told that being pretty makes the needle we are administering “hurt less”. We should not be told that our career options are more promising in fields that work 9am – 3pm. We should not be cut down before we even begin. So please, the next time you see a female in medicine acknowledge her skills, her experience, her wisdom, her hard work and her dedication. Acknowledge her as a doctor and as an equal – I ask from you nothing more and nothing less.
The next time you see a female in medicine acknowledge her skills, her experience, her wisdom, her hard work and her dedication. Acknowledge her as a doctor and as an equal – I ask from you nothing more and nothing less.