Sometimes, I hear from one of you, and it reaffirms what I’ve suspected all along. That you’re still hearing the same old ridiculous garbage comments and advice, as you chase down your dreams in medicine. I got permission to share a recent exchange with a rising star, a fourth-year medical student at the University of North Carolina. Ms. Ainsley Bloomer plans to become an orthopaedic surgeon. Here’s our exchange. Incidents like these leave me thinking, “Seriously, can you believe this guy?!” This is not to say there aren’t a lot of great male advocates out there… but we still have a long way to go to reach gender equity, especially in the male-dominated fields of medicine.
Thank you so much for sharing your passion for your job and your family with the internet. I think it would be super helpful to hear about how one should handle difficult professional situations as a woman in a male-dominated field. If you feel comfortable sharing anecdotes along with tip/tricks for handling tricky to navigate situations, that is a topic I cannot hear enough about. It is great to be able to learn from someone else’s experience.
Thank you for that idea.
Can you tell me more?
What’s a difficult situation you’ve witnessed or experienced yourself?
I recently heard from a mentee that a vascular surgeon told her women shouldn’t do IR, so I planned to respond to that encounter in the form of a post.
If there’s a difficult situation I don’t feel qualified to speak to, maybe I can find a guest to write one.
What stage are you at by the way? Student, resident?
Have a great weekend!
Absolutely! This is something I have thought A LOT about as I hope to one day be a mentor for others as we work to improve our current medical atmosphere. I apologize if this is a lengthy response. But I feel this is something I don’t quite yet have the right words to express. I can provide examples, and I would guess you have a list of your own experiences to share, too.
I am a 4th year medical student at UNC SOM applying into orthopaedics.
Some examples of comments I have received include:
“You’re not strong/big/tall enough to be an orthopaedic surgeon.”
“Do you know all orthopaedics surgeons are men?”
“Why would you want to do that? It’s so labor-intensive and you have to physically work so hard.”
“Do you know it’s really competitive to become an orthopaedic surgeon?”
“Do you think you’re qualified?”
“You’re going to do hand or peds, right? That’s what all the women do.”
Truthfully, these types of comments motivate me more than deter me, especially when I consider the source. I think it’s important to respond in a calm tone and in a leisurely and relaxed way. I think it’s also important to be subtly assertive in your commitment to your field of interest. It’s my hope that over time, we can eliminate discouraging medical stereotypes and open these pathways so that others don’t have to go through the same obstacles in the future.
I think this conversation is so important. There is a theory of learning termed “fire walking” where trainees can learn from the mistakes or experiences of their teachers so they themselves do not have to go through the experience to gain the knowledge. Although there are certain aspects of education we have to work through on our own, some knowledge can be passed down verbally. It really helps to hear an attending level perspective on handling situations whether from a “what I would do” or a “what I wish I would have done” point of view.
The other thing I anticipate hearing in my future career are questions about kids and having a family. I also have seen and experienced some of the tension that can occur between female nurses and female medical students/residents/attendings. This is also something I think would be such a helpful topic to hear about from attendings as to the best way to calm any hostility from the get-go. I aim to be a team player and respectful in every interaction, but sometimes things go sideways, and it is helpful to have the skills to recover from these interactions so we can go back to being productive.
I look forward to hearing more bits of wisdom!
This is great, thank you so much! I have to chew on this a bit, and I’d love to hear your take.
How have you responded to these comments, if at all?
I have a blog post which is specific to interventional radiology in some ways, but covers some overlapping stereotypes. It’s called myths in interventional radiology. I meant it as a myth-buster so people wouldn’t see these discouraging comments or stereotypes as real. I wanted to dismantle them and show their ignorance!
But the post doesn’t deal with how to respond.
I think so often, especially with the power differential as you come up the ranks in medicine, it’s not always possible to give a response. And if the comment hits a nerve, it’s not always possible to give a composed response on the spot. In my experience, that is very hard!
That’s why I think so much of this is internal. What I mean is, women are doing internal workarounds to deal with the biases and put-downs that come their way. And community can be a salve. We need each other just to validate the struggles we face, and support each other, whether in person or virtually. I wonder what you think…
Do you think it’s your responsibility to make the road smoother for everyone who comes after you, by correcting those who make these comments? It’s a noble thing to do, but it’s not required.
And in my opinion, just you being where you are, and doing what you are doing is giving other women permission to do the same. It’s teaching old school and narrow-minded people that it’s not only possible for women to do these things and have these roles, but that it’s going to become the new normal.
Sometimes, others have stood up for me, and that has been a really amazing experience. People who didn’t even know me well have “stood up” on my behalf, and it’s something I will never forget. I hope to be able to do that for others. Sometimes we feel strong and resilient, and sometimes we just don’t. You never know what someone else is going through and what could be their breaking point.
Your point about the rank/ power differential hits the nail on the head.
As to your question, I do not think it is my responsibility to fix others. It’s definitely not my place to correct the person, as I don’t want them to become defensive. I hope that by answering in a relaxed and confident manner, a well-intentioned person might refrain from repeating these discouraging or biased comments to the next person.
In medicine, it seems like we often try to reinvent the wheel, when really, our energy and ability to innovate should move the needle toward progress. There are so many patients to treat, pathophysiologies to explain, and treatments to create, that it feels like such a waste of time to have to defend my career choice and my reason for being here.
Also, I think there is a tendency for those with “softer” personalities, for lack of a better term, who might have been fantastic in a specific career but were pushed into another field because they did not fit the stereotype. Perhaps those of higher rank told them they would not make a “good surgeon/ interventionist/ orthopod,” etc. Maybe all they needed to succeed was a little support, and some experience to buttress their confidence.
I think too for those that don’t fit the stereotype, there is a tendency to feel the need to go above and beyond to prove they deserve to be there.
Sorry… I have a lot of thoughts on this topic, and I can see it from a variety of different angles. My eternal New Year’s resolution is to be more concise.
There’s nothing wrong with your response- it’s a complex topic, and your insights are valuable!
I appreciate your willingness to share because I don’t want it to be me “having the answer” as if I’m speaking from on high- because I don’t have all the answers.
But what you said about people who don’t fit the stereotype being great and missing the chance to be who they were meant to be- that is how I see my former self. I narrowly missed settling for something else, because it’s easy to ‘trust’ people who ‘know more than you’ in medicine. And I think it’s important, as much as you take feedback and examine it, to listen to an inner voice. Clearly, you know what you want to do, and I’m grateful for that! These voices haven’t made your foundation shake.
What do you do, and how do you feel when you’re on the receiving end of comments like this? Share with us in the comments below.
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The path can be riddled with failures, even if you're doing it right. In this recording, I share some of my gaffes with you.