When I headed to FIX17 I thought that I would be introducing the audience to some new ideas. I was asked to speak on the intersection of anthropology and emergency medicine. You can check out a quick introduction to the study of culture, and how it might be applied to our emergency departments in the video of my talk. What I did not realize was what a learning opportunity FIX 2017 would be for me as a feminist anthropologist.

Feminist anthropology has evolved over the years. It started as a recognition that women in exotic cultures were just as worthy of study as the men in those groups. Anthropologists, such as Margaret Mead, made women participants the focus of their research. Now, as anthropology has moved away from simply studying exotic groups, feminist anthropologists too have evolved their approach.  Focus has turned to how gender is navigated in the complicated milieu of history, power and politics within all types of groups. In medicine, we are past the debate that women are worthy of being in the profession. The FeminEM Idea Exchange was an evolution. It was three days of awesome women and men grappling with articulation and mobilization of gender in Emergency Medicine.

Some talks could have been overt case studies in feminist anthropology. We heard about the history of women in medicine, the work done and to be done in the field of EMS, tips for overcoming imposter syndrome, a wealth of advice from an all-star leadership panel, and examples of overt sexual harassment. We were alerted to intersectionality – the concept that race, background, sexual orientation, and other factors – influence how we experience our femaleness. We heard male champions of change discussing challenges they have faced in their efforts to advocate for female colleagues. There were important discussions about the relevance of gender to our patients. We heard about sexual assault, the discrepancies in patient research based on gender, violence as a disease, and a disheartening lack of access to abortion resources. The talks and panels highlighted challenges faced by women, and methods to overcome. They were personally validating, inspiring, and often actionable. Each, on its own could prompt a lifetime’s investigation for an anthropologist.

More subtly, and perhaps of more interest to an anthropologist are the behaviours of the participants at the conference itself. The central research method of anthropologists is participant observation – participating, but also observing and reflecting on a group’s behaviour. So what did #AnthroEve witness:

  • I noticed that during the breaks there were interesting pairings of people speaking with each other. Unlike many other conferences that I have attended where people chat with their own, it seemed there were new connections being made and fostered.
  • We were always late – the discussions taking place during the breaks often bled into the next session. People were enjoying connecting and learning from each other. There is a lot of power in putting people in the same place then just letting things happen.
  • People wanted to share their experiences. Whether it was during the breaks, at the coordinated networking dinners, or at the story telling event everyone had a story and it seemed that FIX17 was a safe place to share. Of course, not everyone may feel that way, but I was amazed at the volume of honest shares that took place over the course of three days between near strangers. I heard countless stories of sexual harassment, personal failures, awesome successes, and gut-wrenching realities. This authentic and candid tone was set by speakers on the stage then spilled into conversations between attendees.
  • The conference theatre felt like a hug. As a speaker on stage, for reasons I can’t quite pinpoint, I felt that the audience desperately wanted me to succeed. They were not waiting for me to trip up. I could feel the support and was better for it.

So what do I make of these observations?

This was a diverse group of people gathering from around the world but with a shared mission of supporting and gaining support from like-minded people. There was a void, a desire to be heard, that this conference partly filled. The need to share stories is an human yearning that comes from an important place. This conference made absolutely clear that women in emergency medicine have stories to tell. This conference was a platform but the sharing, listening, and learning must continue. Your experience, your story, your understanding of our profession are important and worthy. Moving forward I will be asking for stories from my colleagues (male and female). I will seek to listen carefully while they are told and seek to be supportive of their importance to the teller of the tale.

There are many more observations that I could share but won’t. I am interested to learn what you noticed about FIX17?

Watch the full FIX17 talk below!