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Sexism In Medicine Needs A Checkup

My future should be as good as my sutures.

02/04/2017 6:19 AM AEST | Updated 02/04/2017 6:21 AM AEST
Caiaimage/Sam Edwards
It's not uncommon for patients to say "Oh I got a pretty one," while addressing a female medical student.

"If you were male, we would have assumed you could suture."

The doctor had a bright smile on his face and, as always, was trying to be charming. I looked over to my friend to confirm I'd heard him correctly. She looked as astonished as I felt. Here was a young, intelligent and upcoming surgeon who was telling us that our weeks of hard work hadn't mattered; only our gender did.

By this point in time, we had put in more than 50 hours each week at the hospital. We had attended every surgical theater on offer, stood on our feet throughout the day following doctors, answered difficult questions, assisted in procedures, held up necrotic limbs, pulled back engorged intestines and sutured-up multiple abdomens. We would come home tired and then study for hours about the conditions we had seen in order to learn more the next day.

But despite all of this, here we were, sitting in a room with a flirtatious male being told that I had "lost weight and looked good," and the fact that I didn't have "a boyfriend after all this time is unbelievable". Where was the mention of our hard work? Our clinical improvement? Our persistence? Our enthusiasm? Where was the advice for me as a student looking at a career in surgery? Where was the acknowledgment of us as future doctors? Where was all of this? After weeks of diligent study, only my changing figure and current relationship status were worthy of mention. That's when it hit me... I had entered the exciting world of being a female in medicine.

Female doctors are still paid approximately $20,000 less than their male counterparts and are woefully underrepresented in the areas of surgery and leadership.

As a fifth-year medical student I am sad to say that I have seen, experienced and heard many scenarios echoing the themes of my most recent encounter. A woman walking through a hospital is often confused for a nurse, allied health professional or aide. While these jobs are integral to patient care and healthcare functioning, it highlights the fact that people often assume a female is not a doctor but the male next to her is.

While on ward rounds, there are always patients who thank the males on the team by saying "Thanks, Doctor," but turn to the females and say "Thanks, girls". When offering to administer needles or insert catheters, it's not uncommon for patients to say "Oh I got a pretty one," while addressing the female medical student. These small yet frequent occurrences show how, on a daily basis, women in medicine are not equated to our male counterparts.

Historically, there have been more male than female doctors. In the 1980s, only 25 percent of GPs and fewer than one in six specialists were women. However, fast forward to 2017 and females outnumber males in medical school 55 percent to 45 percent and dominate fields such as dermatology, pathology and family medicine.

A 2017 JAMA study has even found that patients treated by female physicians have significantly lower mortality and readmission rates compared to those treated by male physicians. According to a US study, female doctors are still paid approximately $20,000 less than their male counterparts and are woefully underrepresented in the areas of surgery and leadership. Even though preferences for specialty areas across male and female medical students are the same, fewer than 12.5 percent of hospitals have a female chief executive, fewer than 30 percent of medical schools have female deans and only one in three chief medical officers are female.

Most of the areas where women are poorly represented offer limited options for work flexibility and require years of training that coincide with the prime of our lives. However, I believe the barrier of 'perceived credibility' also plays a large role in this gender gap.

For example, after having had placed countless cannulas and done many sutures, a close friend of mine asked an anaesthetist if she could place the IVC for a patient in theatre. The doctor took one look at her, said that he'd prefer someone who actually knows what they are doing and reluctantly let her do it. Fast forward to the next patient, and a male student asked to do the IVC while admitting he had never done one before. For him, the doctor was happy to oblige and assisted throughout the procedure.

It is frustrating and demoralising to see how male students need only don scrubs and suddenly they're experienced and enthusiastic. It doesn't matter if I have been standing for the past two hours waiting to assist in a surgery I had painstakingly studied about. You see, the male student who doesn't know the first thing about lignocaine has a strong Y-chromosome that clearly makes him a better choice.

Women in medicine and surgery need to be taken as seriously as males; it is the only way to truly move forward. Treating us differently and placing less value on our capabilities alienates us and furthers the gender divide.

In fact, lack of support and the presence of internalised bias discourages females from actively seeking out the careers they dream of. Medicine is a long, hard but rewarding road. It is exhilarating yet tiring and requires you to be your best even when you feel less than that.

This undeniable gender inequality scares me, angers me and saddens me.

You see people at their top and you help them at their worst. Medicine is a degree that matures you quickly and gives you a wealth of experience in a few fleeting years. As a senior MBBS student standing on a precipice about to jump into a career as a doctor, I see a field that is bursting with opportunities. I am excited for what my future holds.

But this undeniable gender inequality scares me, angers me and saddens me. In this day and age, women like me should not be made to feel our ovaries and mammeries make us less able to do surgeries. We should not be told that being pretty makes the needle we are administering "hurt less". We should not be told that our career options are more promising in fields that work 9 am to 3 pm. We should not be cut down before we even begin.

So please, the next time you see a female in medicine, acknowledge her skills, her experience, her wisdom, her hard work and her dedication. Acknowledge her as a doctor and as an equal -- I ask from you nothing more and nothing less.


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