If you don’t advocate for women, I don’t trust you with patients

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I started medical school recently. Before it started, I told myself (and everybody else) that I would feel like a kid in a candy shop when I was here. I’d get to try different specialties and figure out which one I want to do out of everything that excited me. It really is kind of like that, don’t get me wrong. But I’m also confused and disheartened.

I had a different career before this. It was in a field where people, generally, wanted to make the world a better, more just place. Some people were not very nice, sure, but even then, they were working toward something that would benefit society.

Medicine is like that, too, obviously. But here, people are also very concerned about themselves, and sometimes that comes at the expense of others. It makes sense. It is notoriously difficult to get into medical school. People out there are walking around with PhDs and amazing research backgrounds and starting non-profits and developing new technologies that save people’s lives, and they can’t get into med school. So it’s scary to think about sticking your neck out and having this field taken away from you after all of your hard work to get here. It’s scary to think about speaking up if something in your department isn’t right, or your colleagues are being mistreated. So many people don’t do it.

Meanwhile, I am a thirty-year-old woman. And thus there has been a very consistent message for me since I arrived at medical school: You should really think about doing family medicine. More specifically: If you are going to have a baby soon you should really think about doing family medicine. Further: If you do a “competitive specialty” you might get bullied out of your residency program by people who are angry that you’ve taken maternity leave, so either plan to have your babies when you are all done residency (I would be almost 40), take only a month of leave, have babies in the middle of medical school, pick a residency program only if you know that having a baby there is not going to make anyone mad, or be a family doctor.

Of course, they insist, you should do absolutely whatever field appeals most to you, and it’s absolutely your right to take the leave, but we just want to let you know that it might be hard for you and you should be warned that some people (not the people telling you this, naturally) aren’t very nice about it.

When this comes up, some of my less estrogen-endowed colleagues say things like, “Wow, this is too bad for you but it’s something I don’t have to think about.”

To them, I’d like to ask: If you are interested in being a father, how do you think you will acquire a child? Will someone not have to give birth to the child? In what way, then, does a discussion around how your colleagues who, unlike you, might have to do the child-bearing themselves in order to have a family, really not seem relevant? If, say, you were going to have a child with a doctor, or have a surrogate who is a doctor, and she knew her program wouldn’t support her pregnancy, how would you end up with a baby? In all likelihood, your particular partner or surrogate is not a female doctor, but if she were, would it not be problematic for you that she might not be able to have your baby unless she limited her career choices?

Is this really not an issue that requires you to speak up in your own workplace?

Where I live, it is illegal to discriminate against women for a pregnancy. It is illegal to fire her or otherwise intimidate her into leaving her job because of a pregnancy. I would suggest that if you are one of the people who is sending the message to young (or thirty-year-old) women in medicine that having a baby is really only doable if they’re going to be a family doctors, or if they look for a residency program where having a baby is specifically known to be OK, then you are not actually standing up for a just society.

Likewise, if you don’t stand up to other bullies in the workplace, if you let racism slide, or if you let people say homophobic or transphobic things. If you laugh at bigotry when you get uncomfortable.

We all need to help each other in order to achieve a just society and to practice good medicine. Absolutely, we must do this for our patients, but we must also do this for our colleagues.

Here’s what I think: If you won’t speak up and advocate for women and other people who may be marginalized in our workplaces, regardless of your specialty, then I don’t really trust you to stick up for our patients, either.

The author is an anonymous medical student.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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