Oh, are you a nurse? The physician gender bias

A man and a woman step into an elevator wearing the exact same hospital scrub uniforms. The man’s pager suddenly starts beeping, and the stranger in the elevator says to him, “Do you doctors really still use pagers?” The stranger then notices the women next to him and asks her, “Oh, are you a nurse?”

It’s something that has happened to every female physician. It’s not that we mind getting mistaken for nurses or any other profession. It’s the underlying notion that a woman cannot be a doctor. It is also an assumption that our male counterparts never deal with. And on that same note, male nurses seem to get asked quite often if they are physicians. But why the overwhelming gender stereotyping?

Is it dependent on how we dress?

When I was an OB/GYN, we wore the same scrubs as the nurses, so I could see why the patients assumed I was also a nurse. Admittedly, this has happened a lot less since I’m a radiologist now (the only medical specialty where women on average make more money than men!). By nature of diagnostic radiology, we are often in office attire and are introduced by the technologist as the doctor as soon as we meet the patient. But still, male physicians wear scrubs all the time and get mistaken far less for a nurse.

Is it because of odds?

I once wore monogrammed scrubs to pick up dinner at a burger joint once. One of the young workers behind the counter immediately asked, “Are you a nurse?” I asked him why he didn’t assume I was a doctor instead and he responded that it was easier to assume someone was a nurse rather than start at a doctor. He said that since there a larger number of female nurses and a larger number of male doctors that his odds of landing my profession was greater. He had a point. The U.S. Census Bureau reported in 2013 that there were 3.5 million employed nurses in 2011, about 3.2 million of whom were female and 330,000 male. Of the 916,000 physicians with an active license in the U.S. in 2014, 66% were male and 32% were female.

Is it because of our appearance?

I once walked outside the hospital to cross the small street to get to the clinic side. I was wearing dress clothes and my white coat when a stranger walking the other way asked me if I was a nurse. I asked him, “Why didn’t you assume I was a doctor?” He had just presumed I was because I looked young. Granted, I can look about 16 years old at times. He laughed and said, “You doctors just get younger and younger, I swear!”

I asked my friends if they also experienced this too. One friend was once at the park with her husband and stepson, and a man asked her if she was a nurse. She told me that he assumed she wasn’t a doctor because she was “too pretty to be a doctor.”

Does it stem from an older generation’s “traditional” female and male roles?

When I first met my now husband’s mother, he introduced me as “This is Karen. She’s in medical school with me”. She immediately said, “Oh, like a nurse?” My husband’s father corrected her immediately. According to my husband, my mother-in-law has always believed that a woman’s role is to stay home, take care of the children and have dinner ready on the table once her husband got home.

A similar instance occurred during the week of orientation for medical school when one of our classmates had a party in his large backyard. I was chatting with an all-female group of fellow medical students on the patio when our classmate’s mother approached us and asked, “So are you the girlfriends or wives?” My feminist friend firmly told her we were going to be doctors just like her son.

What can we do about the overwhelming gender bias?

Obviously, we can’t change what we wear to work or how we look. But we can change the odds and continue to reverse assumed traditional gender roles.

There is some hope for the physician gender bias to turn: new enrollment in medical school in 2016 was evenly divided between women (49.8%) and men (50.2%). In addition, the increase in the number of female physicians since 2012 is twice that of male physicians (11% and 5%, respectively).

Unfortunately, it’s going to take more than just outnumbering men in the medical field. In 2014, the Association of American Medical Colleges found that although the number of medical students and residents are evenly divided, females only make up 38% of faculty, 21% of full professors and only 16% of deans. One study in 2015 found that women accounted for only 13.9% of department chairs across nine major clinical specialties. It’s clear that women need to be hired into much more administrative and leadership roles.

It’s also been well documented that women try to speak less about all their personal achievements then men do. This is due to many factors including the societal norm that a woman should remain modest and less boastful than her male counterparts. So ladies, be proud of your accomplishments and brag away. You worked hard for many, many years and sacrificed enormously so don’t be afraid to boast about your success.

Since that fateful day in the elevator with my husband, I have been mistaken for a profession other than a doctor a few more times. And it is not just the physicians that deal with this. CEOs, business owners, lawyers, pharmacists, the list goes on and on — many women deal with this. And for change to happen, we all need to work together and keep moving forward to decrease gender bias everywhere.

Karen Tran-Harding is a radiology resident.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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