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Boys Club in Medicine

When I started medical school, I was wide eyed and equipped with all the altruism a girl could muster. I was going to be a doctor, and save the world one patient at a time.

It didn’t even cross my mind that I would be a minority. Brilliant women surrounded me all through my academic career, and my inner circle was mostly women. And here I was, finding myself in the middle of a boys club. The old hallways still filled with the cobwebs and dust of “shouldn’t you be at home, sweetheart?”

It started early on when a preceptor mentioned that female physicians were only fit for pediatrics. Or while being interviewed for a job, one man asked why I would waste so much time on training if I was just going to get pregnant and quit. Or when an orthopedic surgeon would give higher marks for shorter skirts. I remember looking around the physician’s dining room and not seeing a single other woman. My medical school class was 50/50 split with gender, but the old guard was still at the gate. Almost every specialist that trained me was male. I would have these random spurts of righteous, feminist anger. Shake my fist and yell, “Where my girls at!?” I found myself cherishing the females in administrative roles around me, and admiring the strength it must have taken to come into this field a generation before me.

My medical school class was 50/50 split with gender, but the old guard was still at the gate.

It was a unique situation of a new, modern generation trying to crack into a system created by male-centered, traditional values.

I saw the women around me take one of two strategies. You could try and assimilate and be “just one of the guys.” Cuss louder. Know a dirty joke or two. And approach each situation with a blunt opinion and an air of dominance. A friend of mine called it “wearing your ovaries on the outside.” It was effective, but came at the cost of your femininity at work.

I like to call option number two the Southern Belle. It’s a “you get more flies with honey than vinegar” approach. You smile a lot, laugh at bad jokes, and appear generally non-threatening. The downside here is that people forget that you actually know something. But these come at a price. The sweet girl would find herself labeled ditzy or flaky. The strong girl was a bitch. In such a competitive field, we all lost ourselves to survival mode. I am non-confrontational by nature, and initially would avoid any difficulty by immediately backing down. Slowly but surely, I found myself embracing my inner bitch. I learned to lean in when I thought I deserved more, or when the situation called for a strong hand.

A friend of mine called it ``wearing your ovaries on the outside.``

I am still struggling with the balance of amiable coworker and “she who shall not be crossed.” At the beginning of our training or careers, it’s easy to assume the identity given to you. To create the least ripples possible to survive that day. But as you grow in your career and your confidence, finding your voice is all the more important. To recognize it, and make some small stand when you find yourself at odds with your environment. Our diversity adds to the team and workplace. There are countless examples of where I was better qualified for the situation because of my femininity.

I am learning to embrace that my intelligence and expertise are worthy of respect. And that maybe being a bitch is simply expecting what is owed my sacrifice and dedication to my career. If we can carve away at the boy’s club, girls starting medical school twenty years from now will be shocked by my stories. But for now, I will remain cognizant that my presence is still groundbreaking and significant. And cheers to us, for winning another day’s battle.

AUTHOR: Camille Robinson, MD
1 Comment
  • I can relate to this! Engineering is still very much a male-dominated field. The newer generations are actually starting to tilt towards 50/50 or even more females than males, but as in the medical field, almost all management is men. Makes you really appreciate the women who managed to succeed in earlier days. Sometimes, no matter what you do, there will be men who look down on you and not listen to a word you say. But, I have discovered that most of these men are human and will eventually give you a chance. Sadly, we often still have to employ the techniques of “making them think it is their idea”, etc., to get anywhere.

    January 20, 2019