Background Reflections

Why are Female Physicians Scared to be WOMEN?

Why are Female Physicians Scared to be WOMEN?

We all know how hard it is to become a doctor – we give up so much of our youth, our family time, and ourselves to get there.  Women physicians, however, also tend to sacrifice a lot of what makes them feminine.  It sometimes feels like there’s an unwritten rule that states that in order to advance professionally, we have to leave our home life at the doors of our offices/hospitals.  Many female physicians will admit to downplaying the importance of their families in their professional lives, for fear that people will take them less seriously.

Why is it that we feel this?  It’s now been 167 years since Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to graduate with a medical degree in the United States.  Nowadays, just shy of 50% of medical students are women.  Yet we still struggle with issues like maternity leave, asking for days off when the kids are sick, and career advancement – only 15% of academic department chairs are women and only 22% of tenured professors are women (check out for more – somewhat depressing – stats).

Trust me, I take a lot of pride in what I do, and find it incredibly fulfilling.  I feel really fortunate to have a job that I love and a wonderful patient base, and to have had great colleagues and mentors.  I think we all do, or we wouldn’t put ourselves through things like taking call when 39.5 weeks pregnant or volunteering to stay late for an emergency add-on, even if it means missing our child’s first soccer game.  Those of you that had your children while in training can probably name at least 5 inappropriate and possibly illegal things that happened in relation to your pregnancy/maternity leave/pumping.

Somehow, though, in doing these things, we’ve set up a system where a male attending who rearranges his schedule to make his child’s school play is praised, while the pregnant female physician stresses about asking to come in an hour late so they can go to their OB appointment.  It’s taken for granted that men will talk about sports, but females are hesitant to bring up how much they love their new purse or shoes.

There are obviously lots of issues, but at the heart of it, I think we as females have been too scared to assert ourselves as WOMEN because: 

  1. We believe we have to prove to everyone that we can do everything an imaginary perfect male physician can do.  How many real life examples of said man do we even have?  Are the male physicians trying to do everything we – on average – do better (studies have shown that we are more likely to follow evidence based guidelines, score higher on care and quality, and tend to show more empathy and are perceived as better listeners)? And, while I know plenty of amazing male physicians, what percentage of them have as much on their plate as the average female doc? 
  2. We think working part time or asking for altered schedules will make people think we don’t take our jobs seriously, and will contribute to our lack of professional success.  These things can actually provide us with the energy we need to care for our patients and juggle all the multitasking more efficiently.  Happier physicians get better patient satisfaction scores, and groups that allow these options have better physician retention rates – everyone wins.  Just keep in mind that if you don’t ask, nobody will offer it to you.
  3. We fear that any complaining will be perceived as laziness or being difficult.  Somehow a male physician can complain about anything and everything, and it’s even humorous and actually results in changes, but we are sure if we do it, it means we are weak, and will be the subject of conversation when we leave the team room.
  4. We seethe silently when patients and other hospital staff (including other physicians), don’t realize that we are physicians, but are afraid we’ll sound stuck up or catty if we address it.  When was the last time you were referred to as a nurse or a social worker (and the male medical student with you was assumed to be the doctor)?  I respect the professions I’ve been mistaken for and don’t view being called them as an insult.  However, I do find the underlying sentiment behind assuming only males can be doctors incredibly upsetting.  Just picture what your scariest male attending in residency would do if he was mistaken for ancillary staff.  DON’T do that.  But, seriously, ideas for a graceful response??
  5. We feel like talking about gender specific issues will either gross our male colleagues out or make them think medicine isn’t our first priority – but we bite our tongues when they tell their inappropriate stories all the time (yes, you all know what you’ve been forced to listen to).  This is why so many on these forums are all still worried about whether we will be allowed to pump during 8 hour board examinations.  It’s 2016 – this really shouldn’t be a subject of more stress than the exam itself. 

Unfortunately, there is some truth in the consequences of doing these things.  But there’s enough of us to change that.  Although we should be 100% dedicated to good patient care, we should also not be afraid to ask for reasonable accommodations to make the rest of our lives work.  We should be completely comfortable in our skin, and there is no need to marginalize so much of what is important to us.  We are a huge part of the medical system, it’s time to push for a shift in culture.