In 1978, my mother interviewed for dental school. On her post-interview tour of the school, her male tour guide assumed she was applying for dental hygiene school and showed her only those areas of the school. Upon my mother informing him that she was applying for dental school, he smirked and said, “Good luck getting in, you’re a woman,” and walked away laughing.
Of course in 1978, overt sexism was neither uncommon nor unexpected. For me, however, perhaps owing to how and when I was raised, such blatant misogyny always seemed preposterous and hyperbolic. This is especially true regarding my image of the scientific community, which I had always viewed through a lens of idealism as community composed of scholars united in the pursuit of truth and evidence, immune to such trivialities. And thus it was not until I started medical school over a year ago that, as my lens of idealism shattered, I truly became aware of the extensive misogyny with which women in medicine are confronted, both from within the medical community and from others.
Thus far in my time as a medical student, I have encountered sexist attitudes from patients, peers, other health care workers, and individuals in nonmedical professions. I have had a nurse imply I am only in medical school to meet and marry a physician; I have had a non-medical professional ask if I am in medical school to become a nurse, and then remark, once informed that I plan to become a doctor, that I must intend to be a pediatrician; I have been asked, perhaps most insultingly, by a man educated at one of the most prestigious universities in the country, if my acceptance into medical school was predicated on my level of attractiveness; and, recently, my attire made me the subject of an anonymous complaint to the dean of students, as my choice to forego wearing a bra made a fellow student “uncomfortable” during an exam.
The experiences to which I am referring, while not identical, converge in their implications on a central theme: As a society, we have rigid conceptions of what it means to be a woman, and we are unwilling or unable to acquiesce with the increasing prevalence of women in influential leadership positions, especially within the medical community. We are more comfortable when women assume careers that align with preconceived notions of women as nurturing and submissive; and if you, as a woman, choose to pursue a profession where intellect, authority, and independence are valued, your motives will be questioned, misogynistic sentiments will follow you into institutions of higher learning, and your appearance will still be an unrelenting target for criticism.
While the patriarchal view that assigns women in health care to the role of nurse or pediatrician is demeaning and antiquated, what is far more discomfiting is that much of society views a man as the epicenter of a woman’s motivation, success, and actions, even in medicine. The idea that someone would actually dedicate years of one’s life to gain acceptance to medical school solely for the opportunity to find a future physician to marry is absurd. The nature of the pursuit of a medical career, which is often seen more as a vocation than simply a job, makes the contemptuousness of such insinuations more profound; like men, women are drawn to medicine because it is a field that never ceases to be intellectually challenging, allows for creativity and innovation, and endows one with a unique, esteemed skillset. Without the ambition and dedication to becoming a physician, one could never make it to or through medical school; the effort and fortitude required are too extensive and innate.
Furthermore, it is disgusting that the incessant, perverse obsession with the female physicality preoccupies even the most educated in our society. The audacity of one who suggests a woman gained admission to study in one the most competitive fields by virtue of possessing physical beauty is incomprehensible; to be clear, medical school admissions are determined by a candidate’s academic achievement, intellectual diversity, and character. Then there is the truly shameful fact that a woman is expected to dress, even for medical school exams, not to maximize her comfort, but to ensure the comfort of those around her. The woman is expected to placate those medical students whose delicate sensibilities are offended by the female body; why is this archaic practice condemning the woman tolerated? Men, if the female body is a disquieting and unbearably distracting sight for you, consider a different profession; women, if the female body is an intolerable sight for you, I lament how society has distorted your views and self-worth.
It is 2015, we are supposed to have gender equality and a diminishing pay gap, but clearly, as a society, we are not there yet, and thus it is imperative that every individual remains cognizant of the sexism still present in medicine. Women, you have worked just as hard as every man who sits beside you in lecture, and you deserve your place in medical school based on your demonstrated intellect and abilities. Men, whether you espouse misogynistic convictions or not, this affects you, too; every time a woman is accused of gaining acceptance into medical school based anything other than her academic achievements, your profession is insulted and disparaged; every time a woman’s capabilities as a medical student or physician are questioned, your sisters, mothers, and partners are being degraded and devalued. Such bigotry is not only unethical and unjust, it is reprehensible and should not be tolerated or engendered by medical professionals.
Laura Faiver is a medical student.
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