I went to a bar last night — and I looked good: red coat, black dress, knee-high suede boots. I was feeling pretty good.
I met my best friend at this bar — he lives elsewhere now — but this is his favorite spot in the world. Like Norm in Cheers, he is also their favorite customer.
We ordered dinner, and my best friend stepped away to talk to the bartender. I was left alone at the bar for a few moments — just long enough to open the door to some new friends.
Someone tapped me on the shoulder.
Guy: Hey, there. My friend here is an orthopaedic surgeon.
Me: Ohhhhh … wow.
Me: So am I!
He looks at me incredulously — like I am the only person who has ever destroyed his pick-up line.
Me: So, what do you do?
Him (again): Orthopaedic surgery!
Me: Sorry — that’s not what I meant. What specialty?
Him: I do a bit of everything.
Me: Well, I do trauma.
Me (in an emphatic single word): Grady!
For those unfamiliar with Grady — we are the major trauma center for Atlanta, Georgia — and we are one of the top 5 busiest trauma centers in the country.
At this point, he leans over the bar, and grabs my biceps.
Him: You don’t look strong enough for that.
Me (without a bit of hesitation or any elevation in my voice): Oh no, I am.
Me: I am actually a world champion in martial arts too. I am definitely strong enough.
Now, very few people know this about me — and I have never thrown out this card when first meeting someone. But, it seemed appropriate.
At this point, my best friend (who is a trauma/critical care surgeon) returns. He hears what is happening, and he is laughing so hard that his head is resting on the bar.
Best friend: You, sir, have picked the wrong person to mess with.
I sincerely doubt this guy ever thought twice about the stereotypes he was pushing — to a random woman on a Friday night in a bar. I am in the medical specialty with the lowest percentage of women (6 percent). Women in my subspecialty in the United States (academic orthopaedic trauma) can probably be counted on two hands. I remember having these conversations at bars in medical school — and nothing seems to have changed.
I laugh about this — and my best friend laughed about this — because we are extremely confident knowing I am exactly where I belong in life. As I stepped into orthopaedic surgery resident interviews yesterday morning, I thought, this is why we are 6 percent. One of my own is inherently biased. He thinks “not strong enough” even when he knows nothing about me at all. How can we change?
I have always approached gender bias in both of my male-dominated worlds (taekwondo and orthopaedic surgery) as something I could control. I knew that I had confidence issues as a surgical trainee — and I worked on that. I treated “confidence” as a skill I needed to learn, just like I needed to learn how to nail a femur. I may not be able to change this guy’s inherent bias (or anyone else’s), but I can be better. And if I can be that much better, he will notice. If he doesn’t, quite honestly, I do not care. I’ll find something else to do — I’ll join a different committee. I’ll laugh like I did that night.
This is most certainly my own opinion and experience — and is not representative of everyone’s experience with gender bias. I am very lucky to be able to say this. But I am up for early promotion — the earliest in my department in many years. I am in “the room” administratively when I want to be — and I am traveling on an amazing vacation somewhere in the world when I don’t. I am very happy, and I truly feel no different than my male colleagues. I hope many more women from yesterday’s resident interview group can say this in 10 years in orthopaedic surgery, and have the confidence to shoot down bias like I did that night.
To answer the question of what happened to the guy at the bar — he drank by himself with his buddy. We did not talk about our jobs again — eventually, he was “over-served” according to the bartenders, and he exited not-so-quietly. I hope someday I get to talk to him again — on a transfer center line — discussing his trauma patient headed to Grady.
Mara L. Schenker is an orthopedic surgeon.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com