Gender bias in medicine: What can women physicians do to overcome it?

The United States has been a slow brewing cauldron of gender bias for years. With increasing tensions and an unspoken, formidable energy in most workplaces and educational institutions, women have grown restless. The culmination has and is resulting into an empowering movement for gender equality (#womensrights). And the medical profession is not immune.

I wasn’t surprised to see that a recent CompHealth survey focusing on women in medicine found women are respected less and harassed more than men. The survey also pointed out that there are huge differences in how women and men perceive things like respect, gender equality, equal pay, and work/life balance.

With more women entering med school than men, things are bound to eventually change — but that doesn’t make working as a woman today any easier. On the positive side, today’s women are standing up for themselves like never before. We have taken on major establishments of business, entertainment, and media outlets on top of the average work environment. Next up: the medical community.

Women are boldly calling out their predators who have made it uncomfortable to learn or work. Women are identifying those who will not allow ascension in the workplace by status or in pay (#equalpay) unless a woman has given in to his biased request. But what some people choose to ignore or turn a blind eye to is the fact there still remains a presence of gender bias in medicine today, and specifically in surgical fields. The CompHealth survey found that 71% of women in surgical specialties face discrimination, compared to 45% of women in other specialties. Sixty-five percent experience sexual harassment compared to 24% in other specialties.

So how does a woman in medicine deal with so-called esoteric gender bias?

First, acknowledge it: Let’s be real. You have to recognize gender bias does exist in the medical profession. There are many who would have you to believe medicine is a level playing field. For the record, it is not. Even 73% of the men in the survey agreed that the medical industry has an issue with harassment. Ideally, any woman should go into their medical training, job, or profession with an open mind. But hear me when I say, don’t preclude your experiences or intuition when things seem to be off, or you experience blunt bias. Sometimes it will be personal and other times institutional, either one is still wrong, so recognize it when it happens.

Second, speak up! Call it as you see it and say something. There are appropriate ways to deal with gender bias issues in medicine, so you are not ostracized or penalized. Educate yourself on what protocols exist for incident reporting in your workplace or institution of learning. Understanding and abiding by these protocols will assure that you are doing things correctly, which can and will legally insulate you.

Thirdly, C.Y.A. (cover your ass … pun intended). Make sure that you document any statements or incidents with dates and times. You can go one step further and email these statements to yourself or a trusted confidant. The email can serve as an official date and time stamp for each incident. It also helps if there was someone else privy to your experience and/or can corroborate details. Unfortunately, hearsay, or your word against mine, is a staunch advocate in gender bias. Thus, documentation in a non-confrontational format will assist your endeavors if you choose to pursue the issue further.

Last and not least, find support. Women can better deal with gender bias in medicine when they lean on others.  Finding a mentor or confiding in a superior who is a like-minded individual (male or female) may help ease the problem or substantiate your concerns while protecting you from backlash. Seriously, no female student in training or in practice ever goes into a classroom, hospital, or operating room expecting they will be treated differently because they are female. Having great colleagues of both genders and patients can remind you why you are in medicine and even how good you are. Join an organization for women in medicine or surgery for added undergirding. And probably one of the most important ways to help deal with gender bias in medicine is to have a life outside of medicine, like your family and friends.

So the good news is we as women are making huge strides in changing the face of medicine and dismantling gender bias. One woman at a time, we are victorious, through our historic presence as the ‘first’ in some positions in academia and our consistent perseverance in the professional workplace. We win, because we choose not to give up or give in. Women are the catalyst that can accelerate change for the betterment of medicine. My last piece of advice is to remember to pay it forward. If and when you can, help another woman by mentoring or encouraging her. There is always plenty of room at the top for more women in medicine.

Sonya M. Sloan is an orthopedic surgeon and author of The Rules of Medicine: A Medical Professional’s Guide for Success.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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