Here’s why women doctors need time together


The 2nd Annual Women in Anesthesiology Conference is taking place in October. Developing this organization has been a labor of, if not love, then honoring. We are honoring a value system that works to gives women the respect, autonomy, and power they deserve.

There is an amazing power in gathering, shared experiences and decreasing isolation. Nobody has identical life experiences. But part of what informs our identity is shared experiences. As anesthesiologists, we did not all do the same residencies. But we all know what it is like to discuss a surprise difficult airway, an ejection fraction of 15 percent in a demented patient getting emergency surgery or the frustration of an IV that blows on induction. When we discuss these situations with our co-workers, we don’t start at zero — we assume an understanding of the basics of our routines and challenges. We take a deep breath and debrief with someone who already understands or empathizes with the situation without having to give a 10-minute lecture on the basics of what we do, which very few other doctors understand much less non-medical people. Sometimes, having to give that lecture before you can even talk about the experience itself makes it not worth talking about the experience.

People keep asking me why women doctors need to gather. “Why do women need a special group? You’re almost half of doctors now; it’s just a matter of time.” Or even more, “Why do you need a special group for the women, we could all benefit from what you’re doing?” I think it is very interesting; we have movies about women gathering all the time: For revenge against a cheating partner, drunken bachelorette nights of revelry or about moms who just can’t take it anymore.

These are well accepted as are dramas about romantic loss and gain. They all fit right into a socially acceptable paradigm of how and when women are supposed to work together. Very few people question whether or not those stories are necessary. They are funny or moving or comforting in some way, and they go unchallenged or even heralded.

Yet, when women want to gather about their experiences as professionals, their specific challenges and goals, and skills, we get pushback. In this world, all of a sudden, it’s not just a level playing field, it’s the same playing field, and further discussion is considered special treatment. In medicine, we frown upon special treatment. The social and professional assumption is that we all train the same way, work the same way, and get treated the same way. We all have the ability and opportunity to reach our goals; it’s up to us how hard we pull on those bootstraps.

Frankly, sometimes this pushback is exhausting. In fact, there is abundant evidence to show that opportunities for women are severely curtailed based on multiple factors. The way women doctors talk, give orders, don’t give orders, speak up, stay silent, volunteer too much, give too little, wear makeup, don’t wear makeup, whether they have children they should be home with or spend too much time being mommy and who they are married to all bears an impact on their ability to promote. The understanding is lean, and the judgment is harsh when women don’t act as they are expected.

So, we gather. Venn diagram-style: we don’t have identical experiences, but we don’t have to start the conversation by proving that work environments are different for men and women. We don’t have to prove that it isn’t a meritocracy. We can just breathe a little easier and know that the assumption in the room is that we all want to work smarter, knowing that we already have to work harder. When I walk into that conference room, I will, if for only an evening, have shaken the yoke of trying to prove my value, of women’s value, to medicine and anesthesiology. My back will be straight, and I will know that we have a group understanding that is far past zero. That is why we gather. It’s an amazing feeling, and I truly hope you will join me.

Rekha Chandrabose is an anesthesiologist.

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