Modern Sexism in Medicine: a Q&A

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Elise Barney, DO, answered our questions on a sometimes subtle, but corrosive problem that deserves everyone's attention.
Elise Barney, DO, answered our questions on a sometimes subtle, but corrosive problem that deserves everyone's attention.

A candid interview with Elise Barney, DO, on a sometimes subtle, but corrosive problem that deserves everyone's attention.

Dr Cooper: In your opinion, what are the most prominent examples of sexism that you have personally experienced?

Dr Barney: I first experienced sexism in medical school when I was doing my surgical rotations. I remember being fascinated with surgery and expressing an interest in being a surgeon. 

Yet, I can't count how many times I was questioned — by men and women, as well as by physicians and nurses — about how I was going to do this and still have a family. I was discouraged. ! was advised to do a more “family or female-friendly” specialty, and repeatedly admonished that “It's so hard — are you sure you want to do this?”

I was even told that I would have to make a choice between being a surgeon and having a family. I often wondered if any of my male medical-student counterparts were asked these same belittling questions.

Also, while on my surgical rotations, it wasn't unusual for the male surgeons to make sexual comments about female patients or nurses. This was considered regular surgeon “locker room talk” and was basically accepted as the norm.

Then I remember starting my internship and the excitement of being called “doctor.” Nevertheless, time and time again I would walk into a patients' room in the morning while doing my rounds, and if he or she was on the phone I would hear, “I should go. The nurse just came in the room.”

This was only a mild nuisance compared to what came next. For the next three years, for some reason the nurses decided that they would be as sweet and helpful as possible to all the male residents while completely ignoring the female residents. Perhaps I'm exaggerating a little bit here, but not that much.

For example, while I was on my ICU rotations, the female nurses would flirt with the male residents and pull out the residency photo roster to go through it and see who the “eligible bachelors” were. Several of them even had affairs, while others married some of the residents or attending physicians. 

We female residents could barely get the nurses to talk to us! Not only was this disrespectful, but it also compromised appropriate patient care.

In my last year of residency, my boyfriend was a radiology resident at a nearby program. Once we went to dinner with some of his fellow residents — all men — and an older male attending physician. I was the only woman present. The conversation centered around how much they disliked women in the workplace. 

They shared stories that bad-mouthed female radiologists, complaining that they “wouldn't have any problems” if the radiologists were men. It was so disheartening. I felt like I had stepped back into the 1950s. How could this even be a topic in 2010? I thought this battle was won decades ago.

Now as an attending, I don't know anyone who would be bold enough anymore to say such things around me. But I still get patients thinking I am their nurse. 

And many patients call me by my first name instead of addressing me as Dr Barney. I have no idea where this comes from, but it's very disturbing. It makes me feel stripped of my title, nor do I know any male physicians to whom this happens. One more example: Every single time I go to the store, café, or anywhere in my scrubs, I am asked if I am a nurse. I would love just once to be asked if I am a doctor getting on or off a shift. Just once!

Dr Cooper: How are female physicians and female physicians-in-training affected by this sexism? That is, on a personal, professional, and emotional level?

Dr Barney: These experiences drive women to constantly feel the need to prove ourselves. It is disheartening after enduring our extensive training to not be accepted as “doctor.” It is sad for me to still be fighting this battle.

I've also heard and read story after story of women being paid less, being promoted less often, and being passed over for jobs. I have not experienced it personally, but I have no doubt that it occurs.

But perhaps the most upsetting part is the denial by both men and women of the existence of sexism. If we can't acknowledge it, then we will never make any progress toward overcoming it.

Dr Cooper: Would you say that sexism in medicine today is as blatant or pervasive as it once was?

Dr Barney: I wholeheartedly admit that modern sexism is now more subtle. We are not being beaten or denied the chance to get into medical school. And most of the time, the sexism is not malicious or intentional. What irks me is the belief that just because sexism is no longer extreme, women are supposed to be happy and accept the status quo as “good enough.”

I wonder why it's too much to ask to be treated the same? Almost every female medical colleague I know has experienced sexism in one way or another. The subtlety of sexism nowadays makes it harder for women to get acknowledgment and recognition in the medical community.

Dr Cooper: Numerous studies have shown that female physicians are just as well trained as male physicians, maybe even more so. Some studies have even stated that women make better physicians than men — not just in terms of "bedside manner" and empathy, but also clinically. So why does discrimination and sexism in medicine linger or persist, in your opinion?

Dr Barney: That's the million-dollar question. Part of it is a global comment on American society. I don't think it's a problem unique to medicine. However, the medical field is behind other industries in a lot of cultural aspects.

We are lagging in terms of regulating work hours and wellness. We are behind in getting help for physicians suffering from addiction and depression. We are behind in demanding better pay, and we continue to tolerate pay cuts despite our rising costs.

Dr Cooper: What do you think it will take to overcome sexism in medicine? What solutions can you think of?

Dr Barney: When I did my new-employee training, I had to watch videos about harassment in the workplace. I was surprised to learn that harassment is whatever the victim feels it is. 

So the burden of proof is on the victim. And the burden is on all of us in the workplace to make sure that harassment doesn't happen.

I think we can apply this attitude of tolerance of such harassment to American society as a whole, and the tolerance needs to change first before anything else will. There have recently been several “women marches” followed by tons of people on Facebook — both men and women — bashing the women marching and ridiculing them. Comments were along the lines of “how dare women complain, because these women could be in burqas getting beaten in Afghanistan.”

I even saw comments that we have the luxury of walking around “half naked” in sexy clothes. How ridiculous! Do we lack such depth that Americans think women can be characterized only two ways in this society — either covered up or as sex objects?

The women who marched must have felt that there was a problem that shouldn't be ignored. We need to listen and understand their concerns, rather than deny that the concerns exist or put the burden of proof on the victims. If women are marching at all in 2017, then clearly we are not equal. That is the proof.

Dr Cooper: What can your male medical colleagues do to help in the battle against sexism?

Dr Barney: I think it's very simple, really. We want respect and professionalism. We just want to be treated as the doctors that we are.

Dr Cooper: Thank you very much for a very interesting and enlightening interview. I'm sure this will help to open our eyes to the unfortunate persistence of sexism in medicine and elsewhere.

Dr Barney: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts with Medical Bag readers.

 

About Elise Barney, DO

Dr Barney is board certified in internal medicine and nephrology. She received her medical degree at Arizona College of Osteopathic Medicine (AZCOM), Midwestern University in Glendale, Arizona. She completed her internal medicine residency at Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center and at the VA Medical Center, both in Phoenix. She completed her fellowship in nephrology and hypertension at UCLA-Olive View Medical Center in California. She is a clinical assistant professor in internal medicine at AZCOM and at The University of Arizona College of Medicine in Phoenix. She is currently a staff nephrologist at the VA Medical Center in Phoenix.

 

About Joel Cooper, DO

Dr Cooper is a contributing writer for The Medical Bag and a board-certified family physician currently working in urgent care in the Phoenix area.

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