How many awkward comments will you receive, and how many awkward questions will you endure as a woman in a male-dominated field? So many. And sometimes they’ll be prefaced with the cringe-worthy, “I’m not trying to be sexist but…” How do you field them gracefully, so as not to alienate those around you?
The latter question adds insult to injury, doesn’t it? The biased and even blatantly sexist remarks women face in the workplace can be compounded by the backlash they can receive when they (you) respond. Being in an attending role, I’m asked how to handle these kinds of incidents. Here’s a recent example, from a mentee, a medical student traversing her clinical rotations.
She reported: “I’ve enjoyed vascular surgery so far, and they’ve involved me in a lot of procedures! I got to cut a metatarsal this week! I’ve also seen several IR procedures this week, like thrombolysis and an EVAR. It’s been interesting to see how we think through the decision to approach a case at surgery versus in interventional radiology (IR). I mentioned to one of the vascular surgeons that I was interested in IR. He replied “I’m not trying to be sexist but…” then proceeded to tell me that as a woman I shouldn’t choose a surgical specialty and asked how I’d be able to have kids if I pursued IR…”
My response initially was…
That’s why I wrote this book…
And basically… I don’t know if you can change him, or if it’s worth your time.
But (I’m sad to say,) I’d expect to hear more comments like that in the future.
You could reply or try to stand up for womankind, but depending on how it’s received, you could face backlash, like a lackluster grade on that rotation.
Here are some possible responses. I’ll leave it up to you whether you say them in your head or out loud.
But don’t let them derail your dreams either. That’s the tightrope you’ll walk as a woman in training. You can do it. You can probably do it backward in high heels, like Ginger Rogers, or in awkward clogs on 3 hours of sleep. Despite these sexist comments that fly at you, you are strong, and you are worthy. It’s these comments that are all wrong. They’re trash; a product of lazy thinking.
How you choose to respond to sexist behavior is up to you. You don’t have to die on this hill, and you don’t have to verbally slap anyone across the face. But in the right moment, if you find a receptive ear, you might just find an opportunity to examine the bias you find and stomp it out.
Is it hopeless? No. If I thought it was, I wouldn’t spend all my free time here writing about how you all should join me in male-dominated fields. I think once we as women, (minorities, and non-binary identity folks) reach a critical mass, our presence will become the new normal, and things will continue to slowly change.
It’s not your job to fix anyone. You already have the burden of doing your best every day and learning as much as you possibly can. In the end, it doesn’t matter what some guy (who is wrong) thinks. It’s your plan! They’re your dreams!
I’m not trying to be sexist but… I think women are often better than the guys, because they’re required to work harder for the same level of respect. And when I need a surgeon or specialist one day, I’ll be praying it’s a lady.
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.