I have been working in various emergency departments either as a resident or an attending for over ten years now and have seen sexism in the ED be a regular issue. Women comprise approximately of 50% of medical school classes and approximately 30-40% of EM residents and 25% of active EM physicians.
While these numbers are lower than we want, a female physician in the ED is not an uncommon finding and in fact is more common now than ever before. So why does sexism still occur? Or perhaps more importantly, why do we (male colleagues) ignore it and become silent bystanders? Why are we not willing to confront it when we do observe it?
Over my career, I remember several particular incidences that I know are unacceptable. A woman physician wearing a white coat to avoid being called a nurse due to the assumption that women are all nurses. Colleagues in the same department making similar snide comments, but the women physician being called a bitch behind her back, whereas the male physician gets either a laugh or ignored. How about being called “honey” by your fellow staff members? While I can be intense and demanding at work, a woman physician with similar qualities is either difficult to work with and told not to be so problematic or even to temper her personality or approach. How about a nurse or fellow provider who questions an order of a women physician but not her male colleagues?
Are any of these acceptable? Of course not and I do not think anyone would defend any of these comments or interactions as appropriate. We all agree sexism occurs and perhaps it is not as obvious as it once was, but it’s still present in our lives. Seeing cases like the above and not interfering makes us bystanders. In the bystander effect, the presence of others prevents an individual from intervening in a situation they know to be wrong. Yet stories like I listed above are common in all specialties including emergency medicine and often don’t get recognized for what they are and don’t get properly addressed. Many of my friends in our field are women and many have related similar stories. They are knowing or unknowingly victims of sexism.
We need to step it up as a profession. We cannot allow these sexist attitudes and behaviors to continue. By not calling out our colleagues and friends for their actions or comments, we are just as guilty as the original offender. The question really is – are we on the same team or not? Change will occur, but it’s important to be on the front lines by standing up to our colleagues. Don’t wait for change, be the inspiration of others.