A physician unmutes herself after receiving an email

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There it was, in my inbox, an email from an unfamiliar person. I knew the email recipient but not the sender. Part of his email went like this “This women is obviously very touchy. You did all the right things; I would just forget about her.”

I was surprised to be included in the email. I told myself, it was likely an unintended consequence of looking me up in the email system and forgetting to delete me afterward.  After all, which clinician-investigator would want to be associated with gender-biased language? But here it was, in living color, words of dismissal from an unknown colleague at my institution. As humans, we want to be visible and connect with others. And here he was erasing my existence through keystrokes on a computer, making me feel invisible, invaluable, and alone.

My disbelief quickly turned to anger. For years, in similar gender and derogatory racial situations, I kept quiet. I feared departmental and institutional reprisals. I feared untrue labels such as a disruptive physician. I feared losing my job. I felt if I spoke up, any of these things could happen to me, despite me being good at my job and having patients that care for me as I do them. As a first-generation immigrant, losing my job would be devastating as I am part of the financial foundation of my family.  And so, I kept quiet for years.

However, in this instance, I could no longer be muted. White privilege and questionable research behavior were no longer going to subdue and bind me. Women clinician-investigators face the same challenges as their male colleagues.  Obtaining research funding is a struggle for seasoned researchers these days.  Then imagine a clinician-investigator, male or female, they are constrained by time to manage their clinical and research practices. Most academic, medical institutions do not provide protected time for research these days. Now, put yourself in the shoes of a woman clinician-investigator. Not only are you expected to be academically productive, on your own time, but you are often torn by your familial responsibilities as a wife and a mother. Regardless of how good a woman is at time management, there is not enough time in the day to juggle all responsibilities. The added burden of an immigrant is that access to parental support systems is often lacking. Therefore, it is not surprising that one does not see many women, immigrants, physicians of color leading research projects at academic medical institutions.

In the article, “Diving beneath the surface: addressing gender inequities among clinical investigators,” women in academic medicine faced the highest incidence of harassment, which included verbal and non-verbal behaviors, than other fields, 220 percent more. Given the statistic on harassment, it is not shocking that only 29 percent of women medical school faculty held an MD/PhD. Furthermore, compounding these factors in medicine includes hierarchal work environments where men occupy most of the positions of power.

The disparity of women physicians in research is a systemic issue that should be mitigated appropriately.  Women, especially minorities and immigrants, need institutional support to succeed as clinician-investigators. Medical institutions should actively participate in increasing funding mechanisms available solely for the development and promotion of female clinician investigators. Funding for research projects, in terms of time effort and supplies such as data management tools, is vitally important to address gender inequities in research. Protected time for planning, conducting, and writing grants and manuscripts for the project is also essential. Women and men in medicine need to become better at involving the appropriate clinical expertise in research projects.  Research, in general, will benefit from the increased collegiality and partnerships among medical specialties.

I emailed the unfamiliar colleague and expressed my displeasure on the tone and the characterization of women in his email. He is now familiar with my research and was apologetic for his rash behavior. Change is needed for women to grow their clinical research careers. I will not be a victim of harassment, or a model minority, and will work with my institution to create the change I deserve. I am unmuting myself. Can you hear me now?

Tina S. Ipe is a pathologist.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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