On April 1, Emergency Physicians Monthly published a piece by Jeanette Wolfe, MD titled “Women Take the Stage!”  Dr. Wolfe’s article addressed the dearth of female speakers at conferences, making reference to the FemInEM moderated discussion on the topic.

Wolfe makes the excellent point that when it comes to gender disparities in the workplace, increasing the number of women speaking at educational conferences seems like low lying fruit.  To some starting with getting more women on stage may seem off the mark, as gender disparities in pay and promotion differences like more pressing issues. But, as Wolfe points out, those are incredibly complicated, systemic issues and achieving gender balance within public speaking may be much more attainable in the short term.  She lays out a series of excellent, manageable suggestions for aspiring female speakers, successful male and female speakers, residency program directors, and CME directors.

The article sparked an important conversation in the comments section.  Dr. Louise B. Andrew wrote to stress the importance of mentorship in developing aspiring public speakers and Dr. Sujal Mandavia, a course director for the Resuscitation conference commented that his faculty is as strong as it is because of their conscious attention to gender, practice and regional diversity.

One comment raised concerns, however, that discussions of gender disparities may simply be “nonsense” or “whining” and that women are never under-recognized for their efforts or accomplishments.  These sentiments are not unique to this comment thread.  Dr. Esther Choo, a FemInEM contributor, editor and researcher, addressed these phenomenon in a well-written reply.

As she puts it, there are several phenomena that are predictably present during conversations on gender bias:

  1. Over-reliance on one’s personal take, rather than the facts. The logic goes like this: “I have been personally put out due to a colleague’s maternity leave / child care needs / etc. Therefore, all women exist to make men bear more than their share of the ‘load.’” A good way to test whether one’s personal impression represents truth is to look at the data. A large body of evidence now supports that women in medicine are paid less, given less opportunity for advancement, and face systematic biases even after controlling for their level of experience, part-time work, choice of specialty, and accomplishments. The so-called whining is not, actually, unjustified.
  1. Defensiveness in the face of an implied wrong. Gender bias is a societal problem. We all – both men and women – perpetuate it, are affected by it, and have a stake in finding solutions. Nevertheless, the conversation often is perceived as being men bashing. The men I’ve spoken with about gender bias have one of two polarized reactions: A) They go into super-over-drive defensiveness and denial (“I have never, ever, worked in a place where females were treated with less respect or relegated to a lesser salary/income status because of gender” = statistically impossible unless you have had no jobs) and chalk the whole issue up to whining, laziness, and entitlement, or B) They start looking at the problem thoughtfully and introspectively and want to be part of the solution. I’ve been lucky to witness the latter quite often, but the former is probably more common.
  1. Inability to take the long view. Many of the senior chairs I’ve spoken with about the work cycles of women have told me that women are their most valuable long-term employees. They are generous, tend to think of what is best for the whole team, including their nurse and physician colleagues and their patients. Focus only on the downside of needing to usher women through their child-bearing years, and you miss the fact that the relatively fallow career years are followed by years of accelerated professional productivity (this is also supported in the literature). Women – who are increasingly making up 50% of EM residency programs – are occupying a critical portion of the emergency care workforce. Despite this, their uteri continue to serve that pesky function of reproduction. Learn to live with it.

Most notably, we want thank Dr. Wolfe for her excellent suggestions. We agree that obtaining gender balance in public speaking is attainable and will start by making high quality, female speakers easy to find.  Because of this, we have created the new FemInEM Speakers Bureau, a searchable database of women ready and wanting to speak on a wide variety of emergency medicine topics.

We at FemInEM are delighted the conversation surrounding gender disparities within the house of medicine is out in the open. We also want to point out that this conversation takes its place among the many others we have regarding gender, balance and professional development..  As Dr. Pik Mukherji put it in his comment “Why do we frame the topic as if men have no stake in the game?”  As we take this journey together: men and women, teachers and students, employers and employees, we hope to better understand and acknowledge the differences and similarities we all experience in our path to professional success and personal wellness.