We must break the circle of sexism


We were a team of women. A strong, intelligent female attending, a fellow, me as the resident, and the eager intern. Gunners in the ICU. Throwing in lines and throwing out numbers and grilling newly published papers for truth.

Then I got a call from the head of the department. I was asked about another fellow in the program. A male fellow. His behavior was in question. I was asked if he was inappropriate. I said I found him short and awkward. To me, he tried too hard and was often late. I, however, never was the victim of any inappropriateness.

“Why?” I asked.

My intern was questioned as well. She also was perplexed. Never did she have any issues. She stood on a stool to position herself to place central lines, yet never was she made small by this man.

We couldn’t fathom why we were being asked about this rather benign, uninteresting, unimpressive person. Turns out he had been harassing sexually his co-fellow, our team’s fellow, to the point of her depression, stress, and weight loss.

Our lives shook. How was this possible? We were the dream team with brains and poise and beauty.

Sexism seethed into our world, and we were all vulnerable just like that.

Ten years later a male colleague asks me, due to all the Trumpisms that has come up, whether I experience any males at work being “inappropriate.” I think about this world of professionalism and what I experience and see, and I decide there is a circle. The men are automatically in the circle. Even the benign, unimpressive ones. Then some women are let in, and those women are indoctrinated into a blindness. The circle protects those women from being the object of sexism to some extent, but there are many excluded and thus vulnerable. When the women guests leave the circle, it changes. When certain women come around the circle, it changes.

The circle exists everywhere.

My 11-year-old daughter is the third best player on her co-ed team. There are nine total kids with only two girls.

When five boys play they play seamlessly. I feel so exhilarated and proud watching. When they rotate the girls in the team, it creates a strange void such that the 3 to 4 boys present will play amongst themselves and exclude the girls. Rarely do they pass to the girls. If they do, they pass to my daughter more. The weakest members of the team athletically consist of three boys and the other girl besides my daughter.

At school, my daughter asked the boys if she can play basketball with them. They said, “OK. And since you’re a girl you can double dribble, and we will give you 2 points.” She left without engaging. I asked her why not just play or why not refuse the advantage given and play? She said, “I’m already forever disadvantaged. They thought to give me these allowances so now I have to be better than that assumption and better than the worse guy.”

The circle is a creation of sexism. It hides sexism, and the assumptions are an invisible force holding back equality. If you don’t feel sexism, then you maybe are a guest in the circle. You’re just a guest.

Ask yourself, what is the circle that I am in? Are there men present? What is the ratio of men to women? Do they speak of outside women to degrade them in my presence as if I am sanctioning it? Am I fully aware of sexism even if it isn’t directed to me?

The circle still affects social order. Our children are exposed to it. How do we tell them to navigate it? What men are our allies?

“Mom, are you mad? You’re yelling,” my daughter said as we drove away from her last game.

“I am mad, but not at you. They didn’t pass you the ball. They excluded you under no grounds except they didn’t know how to act equally around a girl. I am mad because how can you get better and how can you stand to make a mistake and how can I tell these boys them playing 1 to 2 players down because they won’t use the human ability right in front of them will hurt them all? I’m mad. But not at you,” I explained.

“I told them to pass to me. I was yelling their names,” she said.

“I know. Maybe I should say something to the boys or,” I started

“No mom. Don’t,” my daughter interrupted.

We are in a real bind. We are being asked to not rock the boat and to wait out the bad weather.

An article in Bloomberg entitled, “Women will have to wait another 170 years to close the gender gap,” cited the World Economic Forum which assesses gender gaps when it comes to economic opportunities, political empowerment, education and health between men and women. The date given for expected equality was 2186.

I will be long dead, but I will not sit and say nothing while I’m alive. We owe it to our current colleagues and our daughters.

Jean Robey is a nephrologist who blogs at ethosofmedicine.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com


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