As a woman physician, practicing for over 31 years, I have faced many misogynistic occurrences as well as misperceptions about my career choice. This blatant devaluation of women within medicine may be similar to what other women have had or continue to face daily. At large, these experiences resulted in a journey not always easy, nor welcomed, but in the end, accepted for the maturity obtained.
My hope is that by telling my personal story through the following short vignettes, those facing similar attacks to their persona can rise above the statistics of divorce, depression, addiction, and suicide. My hope is that women physicians reading this will find a lifeline so they may rise above the misogyny and misperceptions thrown their way. Finally, I hope that the male physicians who perpetrate these offenses will finally understand that we are all created equal and deserving of equal respect for our efforts to heal others. We are, after all, on the same team to make life better for our patients.
Permit me, then, to briefly describe the more memorable challenges I faced. I would like to label them as my personal #METOOMEDICINE.
My first of many encounters was as a freshman in college, 1974, when my calculus teacher suggested I could do extra “things” for him, to better my grade. My college career “counselor” stated after I told him I wanted to pursue medicine that I should “just become a nurse.” At my ten-year college reunion, this same counselor stated, “That’s nice” when I told him I had graduated from medical school and was a neonatologist.
During residency, the neonatology attending walked into the call room where I had escaped sobbing, after a missed attempt at an intubation of a baby. He grabbed my face, kissed me, and told me not to say anything to anybody. Despite this unacceptable and unwanted intrusion, I still went into neonatology, a subspecialty I had grown to love.
As a new attending, a surgeon told me over the phone “not to worry my pretty little head” when I called him to report that a baby he had seen earlier had gotten sicker after he left. This time I was mature enough to respond that I was the attending, and he was the consultant, adding that if I needed to, I could find another surgeon to see the baby. He backed down quickly and came back to see the baby, who needed emergent surgery.
A few years later, two of my male partners at the time decided that after having a baby, I should go part-time. They didn’t ask me; they just made my schedule part-time. I had no choice nor any recourse. I did not want to move out of state. I was an invested partner, financially and emotionally. My husband, also a physician, had a great career that I could not uproot. So I complied. I remained part-time for almost five years. I took a pay cut, but stayed in the practice, eventually selling our small group to a corporate health care company. In the end, I spent quality time with my daughter and husband. I don’t regret any of it, except that it wasn’t my choice. It was a “choice” forced upon me by these two male physicians.
Lastly, one of my previous male colleagues openly criticized my success creating a neuro NICU and our published positive outcomes. He stated that I fabricated my data. He also stated, in front of other families and the medical team, that I practiced in the dark ages. I subsequently confronted this colleague in my office and told him if both behaviors continued, I would sue him for slander. I then reported him to our physician manager. I was fired two weeks later for not being a “team” player, despite creating a cohesive team within the NICU. Thankfully, I was hired a few months later by a competing group whose core values included respect, ethical practices, and integrity.
There are many other similar situations that reflect misogynic attitudes during my tenure as a physician. Each on their own could have justified me leaving medicine. I often wonder where I found not only the fortitude to stay but persevere, despite these misrepresentations.
My goal, therefore, as my career is winding down, is to share with other women in medicine this simple fact: that through adversity, there is hope for a better future. By collectively sharing our stories, I hope to evoke the healing power within a community that recounts similar experiences.
To summarize, it is easy, in today’s’ culture, to feel deprived of opportunities or successes because of negative experiences, placing blame on these experiences for less desirable life outcomes. However, there is truth to the statement made by others that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” In the words of Sam Cawthorn, a motivational speaker, and author, “You are not just a survivor but a thriver through adversity.”
I want women who are still new in their careers or even those still fighting to shatter their glass ceiling, to take this to heart. Celebrate the achievements from healthy encounters and hard work, but also make a choice to learn from those moments that knock you down unfairly. These are the experiences that will help you find the internal strength to move forward.
Finally, we are the true trailblazers paving the way for those coming up from behind. It is because of our tenacity to reach our goals, that we will allow others to finally have a better chance to grow their careers without discrimination, as women within medicine. By learning these lessons, our profession will become more tolerant of diversity. Let us continue to educate, communicate, and fight for what is equally ours, financially and career-wise.
It is our right. It is our legacy. It is medicine’s only acceptable future moving forward.
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