In 2017, more women than men were accepted into medical school for the first time. 2017 also brought attention to the sexual harassment many women face that often goes ignored. Medicine is not immune to behavior that objectifies women and ignores their complaints. My experiences are mild in comparison to many of my peers, but highlights the comfort both patients and physicians feel discussing the appearance of female trainees.
I was there to remove your sutures. I introduced myself and asked if I could position your blanket to reach your upper medial thigh incision. You replied, “at least they sent the pretty one this time.” You later told the intern how “delicate” and attractive I was; he gave me the option of not having to see you again.
I was observing my community preceptor in his primary care clinic, and you were talking about your back pain. You stopped in the middle of your story, looked at me, and said, “You’re very pretty by the way.” My preceptor later apologized on your behalf.
I was with my surgery preceptor and a colleague of his approached and asked, “Doctor, how do you always end up with all these pretty girls?”
I was with the intern gathering information from you in the ER about your hand injury. You looked up at us from your bed and said, “You both have beautiful smiles.” When we left your room, we bonded over the shared experience of being a woman in medicine and feeling as if you are often seen and never heard.
To my future patients: Please do not tell me to smile or feel the need to assess my appearance. No, it’s not that I can’t take a compliment or that I am having a bad day. Please show more interest in your health than my looks, so we can both work to get you better.
Although much has changed since Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to graduate with a medical degree in the U.S. in 1849, much progress is necessary. I appreciate the work of those who came before me and the culture change occurring in medicine. As we continue to accept a growing number of women and minorities into medical school, it is important that institutions reflect on their abilities to cultivate a culture of equality, safety, and respect for all students.
Misha Armstrong is a medical student.
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