When I was two years old, I ran naked through my living room. Mom reached out and playfully swatted my rump. I skidded to a stop, planted my fists on my little hips, and faced off. “Don’t touch that! It’s mine!” Everyone who knows me and hears the story just laughs and says my sassy started early.
Now, I read story after story of inappropriate comments made to women, and I see the same comment time after time: “I was so shocked, I didn’t say anything.” We are taught that standing up for ourselves is not lady-like and not to state our boundaries, as I did in my living room.
I have served 20 years in the Air Force, and I am an emergency physician. My undergraduate college was 85 percent male. My current career field is only 1/4 women. I can’t imagine I’ve avoided every misogynist and harasser during that time. Despite those odds, I can say that in 39 years, I don’t have a story to contribute to #MeToo.
My strong position has lead to many labels: bitch, ballbuster, but never have I been called victim.
One lesson in command training is this: what you allow, you encourage. Every time someone makes an inappropriate comment, and you don’t call him on it, you give tacit permission for him to do it again. If you get flustered, blush, run away, you have just reinforced the behavior because he got what he wanted: to demean and belittle you.
So many women say, “I didn’t know what to say!” when faced with sexist, racist, hurtful comments. I never a have problem finding my voice, and I would like to offer some of my spirit to those when they have trouble finding their courage.
When I introduce myself to a patient, I say, “My name is Torree McGowan, and I’m the doctor taking care of you today.” Here’s my theory — we are often not ready to listen to the first thing someone says. I tell them the part I don’t care about (my name) first, and save the part I want them to remember (that I’m their doctor) for last. I’ve found this has cut way down on the “I never saw the doctor” or “When is the doctor going to be in?” comments. It’s a small change that has made big differences in the micro-aggression of assuming I’m the nurse.
Someone gives a half compliment
“Good job, for a girl.” This is one of my favorites — almost a compliment, but also a half insult. To meet it head on, ask the speaker to clarify. “I don’t understand what you mean by that comment.” If the person explains that their comment was meant to highlight the gender difference, I will often simply say, “Women are just as effective as men at (blank). Your compliment doesn’t need a qualifier.”
Someone asks you an inappropriate question
A friend of mine is bisexual. She was asked by a colleague in the middle of the ER team center what it was like to have sex with another woman. My favorite response: “Why do you want to know?” And then stop. Look him in the eyes, and wait. Usually, the asker will start to squirm and change the subject. I use this response for any question I don’t want to answer, and it works beautifully. It puts the onus back on the asker to explain why it is any of their business.
Someone makes a sexually inappropriate comment
One physician wrote about asking if she could sit on the edge of the bed during the examination. The patient responded, “You can sit on my face.” This is a hard stop. The correct response is, “That comment is unacceptable. I treat you with respect as a patient, and I expect the same from you. Comments like that are not appropriate and will not be tolerated.” Don’t get mad. Don’t get flustered. Don’t yell. State this in a calm but firm voice, maintain eye contact. You don’t reward the behavior by giving the reaction he is hoping for. Explicitly call out the behavior and state what is acceptable. If this is not successful, work with a patient advocate to have security present during all exams or fire them from your practice.
When someone makes an inappropriate comment to someone else
If you witness someone else being a victim of harassment, stand up for them. It’s easier to stand up for someone else, so don’t allow harassers a free pass. “That comment is inappropriate. We don’t speak to others like that here.”
These statements are short and easy to remember. It’s harder to deliver them in the heat of the moment, so practice them in the mirror. Say them to the driver who cuts you off in traffic. Give your dog a piece of your mind. Assertive speaking gets easier with practice, so exercise your sassy two-year-old.
There is a line that I like in the movie “The Guardian” that’s about Coast Guard rescue swimmers. One of the instructors is teaching how to approach a drowning victim: “The only difference between you and the victim is the attitude with which you enter the water.” We are all in the water, and you can choose your attitude.
Let’s start changing the conversation. Let’s support the men and women who shared #MeToo and help them find a powerful voice. Tweet your response to hurtful comments and show how you don’t allow others to make more victims.
Silence is consent. Do not allow sexist, sexually harassing, racist, homophobic or other inappropriate comments to pass unchallenged. Every time someone is allowed to make the comment, the behavior is reinforced. It is our responsibility to identify bad behavior and correct it in our workplaces, social groups and in our homes. This is how we start to change a culture where it is acceptable to harass: by pointing out the behavior and stating that it is not allowed.
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