The implicit biases of gender stereotypes in medicine

I was lucky to be raised in a place and time where I have not had any significant barrier in my way because I am a woman. I have been allowed to make my own choices and pursue my own path in life. My gender never deterred me from achieving what I set out to do. Can you imagine being a woman a hundred or two hundred years ago or more? Surely, I would have been burned at the stake as a witch for believing in science and forgoing religion. Even today in an alarming number of countries in the world, I would be murdered in cold blood for being an independent woman who says what she wants, does what she wants and dresses how she wants. I can imagine nothing more terrifying in this day in age than still being expected to be subjugated to a man.

Does that mean my life as a female physician is without challenges? Unfortunately, no. Our older generation still holds on to long-outdated ideals, and many are blatantly sexist and racist. I long for the day when I glide into my patients’ rooms, and every one of them puts down their phone and says, “I’m sorry I’ll have to call you back the doctor (not the social worker, the nurse, the PCT, the housekeeper) is here.” There still exists in medicine, as in many other fields, a double standard for women physicians. Yes, we can have the big, high paying, important jobs in any specialty we want. We can lead our groups and practices and departments. We can invent new drugs and treatments and policies that change the face of medicine, but we are still expected to be married, have babies and manage the entire household and family without missing a beat.

I am in awe of my friends in medicine who have children. They work all day, 12 or more hours, and then go home and see their kids and have dinner ready for the whole family. They are expected to be just as excellent at work without any concessions to motherhood and raising a family. They work right up to their delivery and are back working full-time shifts six weeks later. These women are a force to be reckoned with.

Not only is motherhood in medicine a contentious issue, but our behavior as women in medicine is judged differently. How many times in your training and practice have you encountered an arrogant male physician who says whatever he wants, does whatever he wants, and gets away with it? Male physicians can sexually harass female staff, throw tantrums in the OR and talk to their patients as rudely as they wish. These behaviors are often overlooked as the doctor is seen to be too valuable an asset to address their behavioral issues. In the same vein, women physicians who act out are more easily reprimanded and even terminated for being “difficult.” Women in medicine who veer outside the traditional norms of a caring, maternal figure are labeled as too assertive, uncaring, cold and bitchy rather than seen as confident, rational, decisive and proficient.

The implicit biases of gender stereotypes still confer women a disadvantage in a field once solely practiced by men. Even with the challenges we face as women in medicine, there’s nothing I’d rather do. We are changing the practice and the face of medicine. We are strong and capable, and we will continue to break boundaries and overcome any obstacles in our path. We are women in medicine.

Jenny Hartsock is a hospitalist.

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