There were so many things I was worried about at my new job as a pathologist: how to get around the hospital, remembering literally 500 names, actually signing out my cases—the list goes on. However, the fact that I am a female and someone might take notice in a negative way was not one of them. Two memorable interactions occurred within that first month. First, in the doctor's lounge, I introduced myself to a clinician colleague, who had a long glance at my body that was clearly inappropriate, especially when tied to asking if I was single. The second instance, a female colleague verbally gave me the, “Oh you poor thing,” as I had not yet reached her level in the "female physician super league," which includes being married. Unlike the first situation, this one added to the complexity of emotions I think a lot of professional women feel. I also know the pressure to be a super woman—physician, homemaker, woman extraordinaire. For example, leaving in the evening from work to pick up your child from daycare, even if the last case is not signed out, can generate an inner struggle around what you should be doing. Given interactions with our clinician colleagues are so vital to patient care, these situations gave me pause as to how to keep those relationships professional and mutually respectful.
We all know the statistic—nearly 50% of graduating physicians are female. On top of that, it feels that in the years after the Civil Rights Movement, living through an era of a two-term African American president, a serious female contender for the White House, and the Lean In movement spearheaded by Sheryl Sandberg, that some of these unpleasant day-to-day strained or uncomfortable interactions would be a matter of history. I should not have to endure inappropriate glares from a colleague. The truth is different. Episodes of gender, race, or age bias can and do occur, even in our work environment. You may get it in the form of "honey" when everyone else is referred to as "doctor." It may be your colleagues who begrudgingly accept your need for flexibility to deal with child care issues. It may be from a clinician who always asks for a second review of your cases despite your being board certified in the subject matter—or from a group that always chooses you to take notes.
We all come to the table with assumptions and biases. However, the first step is being aware of those assumptions to help avoid making mistakes. Clearly one person cannot change a lifetime of habits that may be affecting their interactions with you. However, in some situations, straightforward, nonjudgmental acknowledgement of the situation may help. For example, “I would appreciate that you call me Dr. Smith,” may be all someone needs to understand that what they are doing is not acceptable to you. Repetitive clearly inappropriate interactions may need escalation. I have had other colleagues witness inappropriate interactions toward me, step in, address the situation, and resolve the issue. Other scenarios, such as frank sexual misconduct, often require escalation up through the proper channels or higher levels of authority, such as your department chair, medical staff officers, human resources, or your state medical board.
In the end, these types of situations may never completely disappear, but there are things you can do:
- Be assertive and frank when necessary. It is okay to directly tell a person that his or her action or comment makes you uncomfortable.
- If you are a witness, do not be a bystander. Stand up for a colleague who needs your support.
- Enlist the help of your colleagues and your institution—you do not have to correct problem behaviors on your own.
- Finally, let’s keep the conversation going. Awareness is key in continuing the changes that lead to the equality we all deserve.