The blonde minority: Sexism is alive in medicine

The blonde minority: Sexism is alive in medicine

While demographic data may suggest otherwise, I still consider myself a minority, albeit a less common one. I am a young woman in medicine, and I am a natural blonde.

I barely qualify for a prescription for eyeglasses, but I have found they give credence to my words and patients seem to take me more seriously. Perhaps three years of residency training and four years of medical school lends at least a semblance of authority to my diminutive frame. I have learned to wear my blonde mane in a tight bun or low ponytail for interviews, to wear a pant suit rather than a skirt suit, to keep heels to a respectable 1.5” or less. I avoid using the word “like” too often.

Over the years, I have learned to speak up, to maintain eye contact and to assert myself if needed when rounds become disproportionately focused on the thoughts and opinions of male physicians and residents. I have gently reminded patients, male and female, young and old, that I am the physician, rather than the nurse, physical or occupational therapist, student or housekeeper. I have corrected patients who call me miss rather than doctor. I have combated years of study, sleep deprivation and the passage of time with a nightly ritual of retinoids, only to be considered years under my level of experience. (Not that I mind a youthful complexion aided by avoiding sun exposure while in libraries and hospital wards.)

During my internship, I went on a date with a good man and a couple of years later, he proposed. As I made plans for my career after residency, I met with a trusted adviser who after discussion of the several options I was considering, fellowship, research, physician positions, assured me not to worry too much. I was, after all, marrying a plastic surgeon.

What a relief, why hadn’t I thought of this? Why should a young, reasonably attractive blonde doctor worry about a career or patient care, financial independence or education? I always wanted to marry rich, medicine was just my backup plan. Or was it? Certainly, there are easier ways to attain financial security than a medical education. Maybe I should have stayed with the trust-fund boyfriend I had after college.

I took time to think about the offhand statement made by someone whose opinion and counsel I had sought and valued. If after eight years of graduate and post-graduate training, a medical degree, residency at an Ivy-league institution and an intact sense of self-worth, I could still manage to be approached with such assurances, what then of women in other positions? Sexism is alive and well in medicine and despite efforts to the contrary, gender bias exists in subtle and not so subtle ways.

I left the office, promptly removed the tortoise shell glasses, changed into my skinny jeans, a favorite sweater, suede heeled boots, put down my hair and applied a little mascara and blush. That week, I applied successfully to fellowship. And still, the question I am most asked lately is how stressful it must be to be planning a wedding. Very stressful indeed.

Elizabeth Horn is a resident physician.

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  • PrimaryCareDoc

    It never stops. At least once a day I am asked by a patient, “Who takes care of your kids while you’re working all the time?”

    I really doubt male physicians get asked that question.

    Although, it is a bit amusing to see their confusion when I explain that their dad stays home with them.

    • querywoman

      I taught 2nd grade Sunday school with a lady attorney whose hubby didn’t have a regular job, probably looking. He had taught part-time at the community college (ya know, the no benefits job) at the college’s convenience and was a, “caregiver for children.”
      I didn’t know him well, but sometimes he’d sit in with us. He looked like a parent to me.

    • guest

      I still get that all the time. “Who is taking care of the kids, doctor?” Grrrrrr

  • querywoman

    I am older than you, a greying natural blonde, but I understand. Did you ever hear of Laura Fernee? She had her 15 days of fame on the net in 2013 when she claimed she was too pretty to work.
    Many people disagreed about her prettiness, but many commented that she should put her hair in a bun or ponytail, and wipe that cr@p off her face.
    You are doing what you feel necessary at work to get taken seriously and as a grownup. I hope you feel gorgeous when you change into your “real you” clothes.
    Perhaps the discrimination has something to do with the fact that few people keep their blonde hair into adulthood.

  • Patient Kit

    I’m a blue-eyed very light blonde woman. During my recent economic and health crisis, it crossed my mind that I could probably pull myself out of my economic crisis by becoming a “dumb blonde” con woman, praying on guys who stereotype us. Alas! It remains just a fantasy. I can’t sustain the dumb blonde act and my ethics/guilt get in the way of making a living conning peeps. I can definitely see how you, as a doctor, might come up against some patients — and doctors — who stereotype you and don’t take you seriously. Lots of people will take you seriously and treat you with respect though once they talk to you. Keep calm and carry on!

  • A Banterings

    There is a glaringly simple answer to the problem that you present and it is not sexism. (I hope you don’t diagnose patients like you diagnose social issues).

    First I will address the “marry a plastic surgeon” thing. Plastic surgery is MOSTLY elective. They are usually not covered by insurances so they don’t have to jump through hoops to get paid. They are happier with their profession, patients, etc.

    I don’t know what your speciality is (you conveniently left that out) , but unless you are going into something where the pay scale is comparable with that of a plastic surgeon, then that person spoke the truth. I will acknowledge that it may have been inappropriate, but still the truth.

    Just as a physician says “we are professional and have seen it all” when a patient expresses apprehension about exposure of their body, thus making it about the physician’s feelings and totally ignoring the patient’s feelings: you are doing the same with this issue.

    Perhaps the real issue is how you present yourself:

    “A natural blonde… my diminutive frame…my blonde mane…rather than a skirt suit… heels to a respectable 1.5” or less. I avoid using the word “like” too often…become disproportionately focused on the thoughts and opinions of male physicians and residents… Not that I mind a youthful complexion…a young, reasonably attractive blonde doctor… trust-fund boyfriend I had… the tortoise shell glasses, changed into my skinny jeans, a favorite sweater, suede heeled boots, put down my hair and applied a little mascara and blush.” (Your words.)

    LIKE, oh my God, it’s Elle-izabeth Woods of “Medically Blonde.”

    Don’t take not being called “doctor personally.” In the 1970′s you saw 3 people in hospitals: doctors, nurses, and orderlies. Each wore a specific uniform and were easily identifiable.

    As you stated, today there are “physician… …nurse, physical or occupational therapist, student or housekeeper” and everybody wears scrubs. Let’s not forget visiting surgical company reps (demonstrating equipment in the OR), janitors (sometimes), phlebotomists, lab techs, quality control specialists, EMT, and a host of others subject to the facility’s infection control plan.

    Is it NOT just as disrespectful to you for someone to call a CNA doctor????

    Calling you “miss” was sign of respect, respect that you are obviously LACKING for the person who called you that! Obviously they did not know your title, and used a respectful address for any unknown woman.

    Obviously with that paternalistic, arrogant, everything-about-you attitude, you are fitting quite well in the medical profession quite well.

  • guest

    I am thankfully aging out of a lot of the dumb questions asked of young female physicians, but they are not far from my mind! I remember the terrible fear in their eyes when I first joined my group and told them I was single. THE HORROR! Never mind that I trained at one of the most arduous programs in the country. I did not have a husband or children, and that’s what young women were supposed to do!

    And that’s what came from colleagues. My experience with patients was similar to what this young doctor describes.

    And when outside the hospital when I tell someone I work at a hospital, the invariable next question is “Oh, are you a nurse?” I just say yes.

    • FEDUP MD

      On the flip side, I remember the look of horror that was quickly masked when I said I was pregnant.

      I think either way you just can’t win no matter what you do. :)

  • J Rizzo

    I am an overweight 6’2 40 year old male nurse practitioner. I have an invigorating mane of wavy Auburn hair, perfect really. However, no one calls me pretty. They do call me “doctor”; I’d rather be pretty.

    • PrimaryCareDoc

      Seriously, though, I think that male nurses have it pretty bad as far as sexism goes.

  • Rob Burnside

    Then there’s another mixed blessing–outstanding writing ability. See “Danse Russe” by (Dr.) William Carlos Williams.

  • Ed

    Really? How is “miss” inappropriate when the vast majority we see in the hospital is female and all generally dress alike? I find the sense of entitlement troubling.

    • FEDUP MD

      How is it entitlement to ask to have the same respect as a man who has earned the same title?

      I can tell you as a young woman in medicine, I have come in the room in a white coat, introduced myself as Dr. FEDUPMD, their doctor while they are in the hospital, had a coat and badge that says Dr. FEDUPMD, and discussed the plan of care. It is not uncommon that they then call me Miss FEDUPMD on the way out the door. It is one thing for them not to know who I am on the way in the door. From a pure statistical standpoint I can understand the assumption about who I am. I don’t see why I should be treated any different from a male physician once it has been made abundantly clear who I am. Do you think it is typical for male doctors in this country to be called Mr. LastName? It is not uncommon that I am called sweetheart or honey either. Do you think many male physicians get called buddy or dude?

      And yes, I call all patients Mr. or Ms. LastName, although if I find out or am told they have another title, such as Dr. or Reverend, I will use it.

  • Bill98

    I agree with Ed on this. “Miss” is a respectful way of addressing someone when you don’t know their name, or anything about them, least of all their profession or level of education. Although, some women, including the author apparently, choose to see this term as somehow demeaning. Personally, I would prefer to use “Ma’am”, but, of course, then I’m accused of insinuating that the woman is old.

    Both terms are equivalent to addressing a man as “sir”, and how could anyone, including a doctor, be offended by that?

    That the author has chosen to take exception to a term of respect seems to reveal her insecurity. If you are always expecting to be treated as a “bubble headed blonde”, I suppose you will see this even when polite respect was all that was intended.

    And by the way, unless you are MY doctor, and we are involved in a professional relationship, I feel no need to call you “doctor”. Anymore than you are obligated to call me “master of business administration” Bill. “Mister” will do just fine, and expect “Ms.” in return. After all, we are both adults, each accomplished in our own right, and deserving of the same respect.

    • FEDUP MD

      I can tell you from experience that often the “miss” persists once they have been told exactly who you are. It is not a sign of insecurity, it is something that is done to female physicians almost exclusively that is not done to male physicians. In my experience most male doctors are referred to as Dr. LastName in a professional relationship. It is not infrequent I am referred to as Miss LastName, even when I have introduced myself as Dr. LastName to a patient.

      It is a form of microaggression, which we are told is a sign of “insecurity” or “being too sensitive” if we object, like this author. However, if it occurred to men they would never put up with it. I would suggest rather than thinking that young female physicians are all too sensitive, that perhaps there is a truth to what they are saying. Minimization is also a form of microaggression.


    My Asian colleagues sure do get a lot of “wow, you speak English well, where are you from?” when they are often third generation Americans. That would get really irritating.

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