Becoming a doctor is a long, hard and expensive process – complete with unhuman work hours and the constant exposure to human suffering.
For women in medicine though, these difficulties can be compounded by the pervasive sexism that threatens the careers and wellbeing of female doctors.
Science magazine recently reported on the lawsuit filed by seven female and one male current and former employees of Mount Sinai Health System’s Icahn School of Medicine. The lawsuit accuses four senior men of sexism and ageism, with a list of claims such as e-mails referring to one woman as an idiot, along with frequent reference to female employees by disgusting curse words. This lawsuit is just the latest in a growing list of accusations levelled at the institution of medicine by female physicians around the world. At the beginning of the #MeToo movement, #MeTooMedicine was a testament to the almost universal experience of sexism amongst healthcare workers.
While lawsuits and dramatic public accusations are shocking, they fail to capture the insidious and almost inescapable nature of sexism and gender bias in medicine. The daily lived experience of a woman in medicine is often subject to biases and trials that add to an already challenging career.
Lawsuits do not act on the gender pay gap in medicine. They don’t explain the inequities in career progression between male and female doctors. It fails to report how a female surgeon, who has a patient death, will be punished with a drop in her referrals whereas a man won’t experience this. Lawsuits don’t encompass the daily microaggressions that a female doctor hears like the astonishment that she is the doctor or the way in which patients defer to the younger, more junior man over her even if she is the team leader. Just this weekend, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology was called out for asking nursing mothers with newborns to leave the conference hall. (ACOG since apologised and welcomed all parents with infants into the scientific sessions)
While lawsuits like this are shocking, they are just a part of the constant sexism that women in medicine must endure. And endure they must because if you ever think of standing up to the harassment or the bias, your career will almost certainly suffer. In 2015, Australian vascular surgeon Dr Gabrielle McMullin publicly stated that female surgeons would be better off giving oral sex to aggressors rather than reporting them because standing up to your aggressors often leads to irreparable damage to your career.
Medicine is a noble profession, but it is also hierarchical and dominated by men with a culture that sees abuse not as illegal or damaging but as ‘character building’ and a necessary part of medical training. Perpetrators are often left in positions of power long after they have been given slaps on the wrist by management. Medicine’s belief in its decency is so strong and possibly misguided that it hampers our ability to look inwards and see that it is not fair, it is not always noble and when it comes to the treatment of women, it is wrong.
Whether it be in the form of a Time’sUp movement, legal action or preferably, a self-directed long hard look at how gender plays out in our hospitals, it is long overdue. Medicine has long gone unnoticed too long for its deeply ingrained gender biases and this is an enormous mistake. Not only do we risk losing our best and brightest under the pressure of harassment, harassment in medicine is a patient safety issue. In workplaces where bullying, discrimination and sexual harassment exists, performance is affected an in healthcare, that performance puts lives at risk.
I believe in the goodness of my profession, because I have seen it in practice. I have seen so many of my colleagues display compassion and kindness to our patients. I know that we care so deeply about the wellbeing of other people, we toil late into the night for the benefit of the people we are charged with caring for. Medicine needs to turn that compassion in on itself, honestly and end the insidious biases and far-too frequent harassment that plagues us.