the blog
the book
about
speaking
Contact

Work-Life Balance & Financial Empowerment

for women in medicine

tired superheroine

Career & Leadership

“I’m not trying to be sexist but…”

December 31, 2020

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.

A chat with a vascular surgeon gone sideways

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. 

When you’re fielding blatant sexism, try:

  1. “Anything preceded by ‘I’m not trying to be sexist but…’ is nearly guaranteed to be sexist, and doesn’t excuse you from saying it.”  
  2. “Who determines who ‘should’ pursue a certain career path?” (The individual in question, or the crusty, outdated notions in your little head?)
  3. “What year do you think this is?”
  4. Define mansplaining to the perpetrator. Suggest that if he (or she) hasn’t actually been a mother in said field, he probably shouldn’t advise on it. Or, cite numerous examples of inspiring and successful women in the said field. 

Approach with curiosity

  1. “Do you think that comment is helpful?”
  2. “Why did you choose a surgical specialty? Did you ever consider that women may have the same motivations, aspirations, and skills? Did you ever consider that to deny someone’s potential because of their gender is an idea not fit for this century?” 
  3. Ask, “Do you have kids? Who is fathering them when you’re operating and seeing patients?” 
  4. Ask, “Does your wife work outside the home?”
  5. “Do you realize that women comprise more than half of the talent pool entering medicine these days?” 
  6. “Do you realize that because of systemic biases, women have to work harder and be objectively better than their male peers to be noticed, respected, and trusted?”

Judging them… and prompting them to judge themselves

  1. “Sorry, can you repeat that?” (With an incredulous tone, and a quizzical look)
  2. Make a face… “Why would you say/ think that?” 
  3. “Would your mother approve of that attitude toward women?”
  4. “Do you find gross overgeneralizations helpful… in general?”
  5. Did you know women comprise more than half of med students these days? You’d better hope they do become surgeons so there will be one to take care of you when YOU need one. 
  6. Would you want your own daughter to make career decisions based on her reproductive equipment, or based on the fact that she’s a person with the brains, heart and soul of a doctor? 

Dripping with sarcasm, if regionally appropriate

  1. “Did you know they actually allow women to be surgeons now?! It’s wild…”
  2. Women physicians have been shown to have superior outcomes. So… perhaps men shouldn’t be allowed to be surgeons.  
  3. “Do you have kids?” (Yes, I have two, they’re great, blah blah…) “How did you expect to do that and be a surgeon?” 

Responding to, “Women shouldn’t choose a surgical specialty. How will you have kids if you do?”

  1. “Whether or not I choose to procreate is independent of my career choice, actually.”
  2. “I have a partner who believes men and women should both be involved parents.” 
  3. “Have you ever given birth or been a mother in medicine? Then how do you know what it’s like or whether it ‘should’ be done?”
  4. “Have you heard of benevolent sexism? It’s the idea that men know better than women, simply because they are men. I suggest you read about that tonight.”  

If all else fails… and he wasn’t trying to be sexist… he was just trying to help

  1. Did you know that sexist comments like that are damaging to the environment and to future physicians’ careers?
  2. Did you know it’s not 1970 anymore? 
  3. Hand him a copy of my book and suggest he donate a copy for every member of the nearest medical school, so he can help the student body to learn not to perpetuate these disempowering notions.
  4. Hand him my website so he knows sexism is a problem in medicine, and not to be a part of it. 

Don’t get fired reacting to sexist comments

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. 

Share this!

+ Show / Hide Comments

Share to:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

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.

How to frame failure
on the road to success

FREE audio

blog
speaking
book
about

© copyright tiredsuperheroine 2018-2020 | all rights reserved

retreat
Contact

Thrive in a male-dominated field

tired superheroine