The 'B' Word

Bitches get stuff done. - Tina Fey My team had developed a little habit of being late to work. I hate being late, it's just something I really try to avoid doing. For the first four months, I let it slide. But then, I told them all that they need to be on time. I did not name call or swear or shout. But I saw it all on their faces, the raised eyebrows, the downcast gaze. And then, as predictable as death and taxes came the 'B' word. Bitch. How original.

I have been called a bitch for as long as I can remember. And some of the time, it really makes me mad. That ambition, assertiveness, requesting a standard, standing of myself or taking no rubbish from people equates aggressiveness, dominance or is in some other way threatening is the way female behaviour is often skewed. The rest of the time, I wonder what fool would call a woman a bitch if he really thinks she is aggressive, domineering and won't take his BS? Talk about poking a bear!

It's not so much the choice of the word bitch that annoys me, it's what it implies. If a male boss asked his juniors to perform to a certain standard, he may be called firm but fair. If he wanted to advance his career and expressed desire to lead or win or achieve, he would be called ambitious. A woman in those same positions gets called a nasty bitch or a bossy bitch. Why should a woman boss not demand a certain standard? Why should a woman not express ambition to rise through the corporate ranks? What is that is so wrong with this? Why do women get name-called for it?

I'm a bitch, I'm a lover, I'm a child, I'm a mother. - Meredith Brooks 'Bitch'

When you call me a bitch, you turn me into a one dimensional nasty, scheming, domineering and unstable woman. I could be a sweet as pie, laughing and joking, even inspiring for 95% of the time. The 5% of the time I get cross or demand a standard or assert myself and get called a name colours everything else I do. Nobody will seem to remember that 95% of the time. Nobody will ever remember that their actions necessitated repercussions. My team for example, very swiftly forgot that they had mostly been 5-10 minutes late the entire year and that asking for everyone to be on time is courteous to everyone who is.

Once you are called a bitch once, that is all you are. Everyone is waiting through the fun times and laughter to see what I will next identify as unfavourable and 'turn into a bitch' about. A woman who is a bitch is incapable of expressing a range of emotions, of which anger or frustration are normal human emotions. She can only be that one thing from there on out. She has been painted with the bitch brush and that is hard to erase.

Bitch, like a number of other derogatory feminine nouns, is thrown around so commonly these days. It's no surprise that even as children, we use the word bitch and pretty indiscriminately too. Rap songs have been infamous for their use of words such as bitch, hoe or slut. Snoop Dogg, a pretty masculine kind of guy, recently came out and said that with his daughter and mother in mind, he would never refer to women as 'bitches' again. He would be horrified for someone to use those terms to describe his daughter so he should lead by example. And how true is that? We call each other names that if they were used for the women in our life that we care for, we would be furious. But with terms like bitch firmly engrained in our vernacular, is it any wonder that we so freely use the term in a derogatory fashion?

She didn't care that people called her a bitch. 'It's just another word for feminist,' she told me with pride.

By all accounts, Steve Jobs was a hard task master. He demanded excellence from his employees and from himself. When he sadly died from cancer, the world mourned the loss of this brilliant mind and business man. People called him a visionary and a genius. Will we do the same if the world were to lose a bitch? Probably not.

If being a bitch means voicing an opinion or demanding a high standard, then I am a bitch. If it means that you don't take someone's BS and will fight back when insulted, then I'm guilty on those counts too. If you think that I am confident and not afraid to challenge the status quo, then again, I am sorry to say that I am a bitch. And you'd better watch out. Because the bitches of the world are coming. Beyonce, Sheryl Sandberg, Michelle Obama, Hilary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Julia Gillard, Julie Bishop, Taylor Swift and Melissa Mayer. The woman executive at the bank, the lawyers, the doctors, the politicians. The small business owner and the athletes. If you are threatened by the bitches of the world, you had better get over that quick smart.

I am not going to say that I am 'proud to be a bitch'. I do my best to be a good leader and although I am not perfect and have plenty of learning to do, I actually think I do an okay job of it most of the time. I am proud to be opinionated and dedicated. I am proud to believe in high standards and I will never apologise for wanting to be good at my job, for wanting the best for my patients from myself and from those around me. I will not let go of my ambition because I am proud of my drive and dedication. I will not admit to being consistently even tempered or sugar, spice and all things nice. I am human and I express anger, sadness, happiness, despair, jealousy, fear and hope, all normal and healthy human emotions. If you want to call me a bitch, that's fine. I won't stop you. But don't be surprised when I use all of my 'bitchy' qualities to succeed while you call the next ambitious woman names behind her back.

As much as I say that sometimes being called a bitch upsets me, I know who I am and I am proud of who I am. If those qualities that I am proud of also get me called a bitch, then so be it. I have broad, bitchy shoulders that should have no trouble bearing the load. I can't wait to be in a workplace with more 'bitchy' women. We're going to do a great job!

Can you have it all?

A few years ago, I spoke at a women in medicine day for a university surgical society. The theme of the day was how to have it all. I felt more than a little nervous. I don't know that we can. But I had decided in fairness to both sides of the debate to try and tell these young women how I try and 'have it all'. What was ironic was the morning of the presentation, I had been called in at 4am for an aortic dissection. What was more ironic was that 5am was when I was supposed to be finishing my talk because I hadn't had time to finish it before then. But I did my best. My opinion was that you can have it all as long as you work out what 'it all' means to you as an individual, family or couple and that it may not all happen at once. A fellow speaker who was a rural GP/surgeon stood up at the end of my talk and wanted to know if I ever 'take me batteries out'. I don't know what she meant by that but she may not have listened to the bit where I said do what is right for you. A friend of mine is applying for surgical training and I fully support her and I think she will be wonderful. We had a bit of a talk last night about one thing that is really worrying her about embarking on a surgical career. That is, meeting someone and having a family. How do you do both? Can you have both? Or do you have to choose?

Women, regardless of professional standing, are more likely to spend more time with household chores and child rearing tasks. If they are married to another professional, for example two doctors, the woman is more likely to forego or change her career to a different specialty that is more conducive to family-related tasks. Even if her specialty is perceived as 'more prestigious'. Women physicians are more likely to be married to another physician while male doctors are not. And when we look at a doctors' formative years, women doctors are a lot less likely to have children than their male counterparts. But it's not doom and gloom, we're not a lonely barren lot. Women doctors are married and procreating at rates comparable to the general population. No need to break out the cat lady starter kit just yet.

I am going to go back to the statement that I made at the university function. Everybody is different. I don't think you necessarily have to pick one thing over the other. It is surgery or it is a family. It is work or it is a marriage. It is operating or exercising. The scalpel or drinks with friends. It is balancing these in a mixture that makes you happy that I think you really need to work out. At the same time, I also don't think that if you for example see family as your number one in life, the thing you will be most whole with and that you're worried how surgery will impact on that, well that's cool. Nobody wants to spend their life in a career that they resent away from something or someone that they love.

I think what I want to say is that I think it's possible to tick all of the things in life that you want. I'm reluctant to say 'have it all' because really, I think that saying in itself is rubbish. But you need to work out what the important things in life are to you. Then it's just a matter of timing.