A recent article written by Dr. Karen Sibert was shared via social media, intending to help women avoid harassment in medicine. Unfortunately, although it was well-intended, the content was questionable. Written by a woman who reportedly went through training when medicine was skewed very heavily toward the male gender, and who has raised two daughters, there are clear lessons to be learned from her path. However, the tips included in the article stray from the leading message of female empowerment. Here, I’ll deconstruct Dr. Sibert’s tips and add my own perspective to hopefully make them more relevant to women in medicine today. You can find her original article here.
Sibert begins her article with two strong statements: “Let me say first that any woman who has ever been harassed or assaulted should NEVER be made to feel that it is her fault. It is always the perpetrator’s fault.”
This is something that I will reinforce, and to make it clear, women are not the only ones who are victims of harassment or assault. Although in this article, we are speaking about women in medicine, it is important to realize that this is a gender-fluid issue and not limited solely to women. Anything discussed in relation to women can be extrapolated to some extent to men. The amazing thing about the current field of medicine is the extent of men and women who are passionate about working together to improve the quality of training and work for all. Hopefully, by sharing Sibert’s tips and some of my own thoughts, we can open the discussion further.
Act Like The Person You Want Everyone To Think You Are
Dr. Sibert makes some great points about confidence and how this can play an important role in impressions – not only on others but on yourself. In medicine, self-confidence often comes with time, as knowledge and experience builds up in layers. We’ve all heard the saying “fake it until you make it”. This is something I have carried with me through my medical training and beyond, and still occasionally tell myself. Medicine is a career full of uncertainties. As women, we are more likely to question ourselves than our male colleagues. It is crucial to remember that we all progress and learn at different rates and in different ways. Have confidence in your own path and process, but don’t be afraid to ask for help along the way.
This strong emphasis on self-worth devolves later in the article as Sibert starts relating physical appearance to perceived competence. As women, sometimes we are told to dull our appearance in order to blend in with our colleagues and Sibert reinforces this outdated recommendation. The article states “the prettier you are, the more important a professional-looking, even severe hair style is to your being taken seriously.” If you’re familiar with #GirlMedTwitter on social media, this topic has been discussed extensively – especially in the post “Surgery, Lipstick, and the rise of #GirlMedTwitter“. It is almost unanimous among women in medicine that looking good equates to feeling good and therefore boosts confidence and performance. If this means wearing lipstick or a nice hairstyle, then we should be supporting each other in this. Because although appearances can often make an impact on first impressions, it is our actions that build our character and reputation.
How to Respond to Harassment
Dr. Sibert speaks on harassment and how to respond to questionable situations, advising women to “pretend you didn’t hear inappropriate comments, pretend you’re busy writing a note or checking your phone.” This response is not only irresponsible but dangerous. By failing to acknowledge inappropriate comments or harassment, we passively allow this behavior to continue. There is no change without intervention, and it is up to us to continue to advocate and educate both perpetrators and the victims. Additionally, it is our responsibility to speak up for our colleagues if we witness this behavior. A safe and comfortable work environment is beneficial for everyone, including our patients, and we all play a role in this. If you witness inappropriate behavior and are not comfortable speaking up in the moment, it can often be helpful to address it later on. Having a mentor in the workplace is crucial for situations like this, which can be difficult to navigate, especially in a training environment. The most important thing to remember is that each one of us has the right to feel safe and respected at work – and if that is not happening, something needs to change.
Be Gracious and Make Friends
Sibert, in this section, speaks about animal behavior and becoming a pack animal rather than prey by relating to harassers. In my opinion, this feels dangerously similar to Stockholm Syndrome. If you feel scared or threatened by the behavior of a colleague, in no way should you feel an obligation to befriend them. This, again, perpetuates dangerous behavior and an unsafe work environment. Inappropriate behavior in the work setting should not exist – hard stop. If you at any time feel that your safety is threatened, speak to someone you trust. This cannot be stressed enough. In medicine, we cannot be expected to provide safe and quality patient care if we ourselves do not feel safe.
Sibert closes her article with some great points that fit surprisingly with her opening, although the middle feels disjointed. She again emphasizes safety, with tips such as getting security to walk in the parking lot with you at night, and always taking an elevator instead of stairwells. It’s surprising that she speaks about trusting your sixth sense here, when she has tried to suppress it so much in the rest of her suggestions. This sixth sense is important and relevant not only to personal safety but also in patient care. Learning to recognize this internal feeling of discomfort and listening to it can be integral in the field of medicine.
In summary, the things we are told as women in medicine have the ability to either stifle us or to empower us. Our words have power and the way in which we use them is both compelling and frightening. As women, we need to encourage one another to blossom in our individuality while building confidence in a work environment that has the potential to be overwhelming and intimidating at times. Men, as our colleagues, are great advocates as well. The more we all work together to educate and advocate, the more our colleagues will follow suit. It’s not about avoiding #metoo, but recognizing that in the end, if we all offer our support, we can implement change.
This piece originally appeared on Dr. Willet’s blog Flying Phoenix MD.