My respected neurosurgery colleague just ended his career inauspiciously — having had an affair with a resident.
While I don’t know the details, I do know that many a male leader, like my friend, has fallen from his perch due to “zipper malfunction.” Had they stronger zippers, maybe they would have kept their sensitive parts in their proper homes and carried on to fulfill their important jobs.
Disappointed, but not terribly surprised, I wonder if the glitch is a chemical or a mechanical issue? Female leaders, Jennifer Aniston’s character in Horrible Bosses notwithstanding, have fewer issues with their zippers. Women’s clothes, though devoid of pockets, just have stronger fasteners. Is it possible that the same testosterone that bolsters a man’s courage to boldly lead at the same time withers his zipper? The fail rate does appear to be proportional to power.
The breaches in men’s britches are ample and have been going on since the beginning of humankind, but in the enlightened days of the #MeToo movement, they are surprisingly frequent. It has been more than 20 years since our former commander in chief, President William J. Clinton, endured a most public airing of his zipper malfunction during his impeachment hearings. While U.S. presidents from the time of the country’s founders are rumored or confirmed to have had extramarital affairs, President Clinton’s was the first to threaten his job. This should have been a wake-up call among politicians to act with more propriety or at least get better-designed trousers.
But in the years since Clinton, the tally of men believing their power and influence was immune to the fate that befell other weaker zippered men has continued to multiply. A quick Wikipedia search of “federal political sex scandals” yielded 39 instances of politicians’ sexual misadventures since President Clinton, including another U.S. president.
For the vast majority of these men, and one woman, the discovery of the scandals was career-ending. Some of the politicians loudly calling for Bill Clinton’s resignation and impeachment were embroiled in their very own scandals. Representative Newt Gingrich (R-Georgia), Speaker of the House, while pushing for Bill Clinton’s resignation and leading calls for his impeachment, was likewise engaged in an extramarital affair with a staffer. He was later pressured to resign his Speakership and eventually his House seat.
These very public zipper mishaps could have served as a cautionary tale for other men in the public eye. Yet the problem persisted. Jeff Bezos and Arnold Schwarzenegger, among others, had famously faulty flies. While their pants were not impervious, their testosterone-tainted egos had convinced them that their power, image, and status were iron-clad. The chemical argument wins here.
I can go on … bosses, coaches, doctors, you name it. In the case of my colleague, it might have been the much weaker scrub-pants tie, the undoing of Grey’s Anatomy and real-life surgeons alike. Perhaps an attractive staffer, player, or medical student is flirtatious, attracted to the man in a place they wish to be someday. Maybe the job is stressful and has long lonely hours. Do these things make the pants-holder fray? Can the mind and body of a person able to keenly focus for eight hours on a nuanced surgical procedure somehow crumble in the presence of a nice-smelling subordinate?
A survey of the people standing around me in the operating room Friday yielded a resounding, “Yes!” to that question, immediate company excluded of course. Each had a story of a professor with an affinity for residents or medical students and an irresistible magnetic pull on the zipper slider. The more remote the story, the less likely it was to have impacted the wearer’s status. One of the more recent offenders was fired, yet landed back on his feet in another faculty position. Sadly, my survey indicated that the odds were in favor of the flawed flies.
I count myself lucky not to have encountered unwanted advances from my professors during residency. It could be I was too tired and obtuse to notice? Maybe my casual references to the mythical notebook I was keeping for a future tell-all book were off-putting? Fortunately, we never generated Grey’s Anatomy-worthy material. There was plenty of innuendo when I was a medical student, though. Enough that I had to learn how to walk a clean line to stay on the good side of the lech I might need a letter from, without getting on the dark side of those zipper teeth!
When I applied for neurosurgery residency positions some years ago, it was common to hear men argue that women couldn’t perform well as a surgeon, soldier, leader, etc., because their hormonal mood swings would interfere with their judgment. Women were far too emotional to handle tough boardroom deals or make crucial medical decisions while on their period. A pregnant woman would not be able to concentrate during surgery. Thankfully in today’s more diverse environment, saying such a thing out loud would likely get you fired, canceled, or both. I would argue that history has demonstrated a long road of hormonal destruction paved by our male leaders, sometimes with devastating consequences. Or it could just be that the expensive zippers of powerful men are lousy. It is a persistently tricky design puzzle — the menswear zipper.
Barbara Lazio is a neurosurgeon.
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