“I’d be careful there… it’s a total boys club.”
The first piece of advice I received when discussing an interest in emergency medicine. Passive, vague, (unsolicited unfortunately) and offered for one reason and one reason only, I had expressed interest in a predominantly male specialty.
Early medical school is a strange time. As a student you are suddenly bombarded with questions that you aren’t sure how to answer: What is a P-wave? Where is your stethoscope? Why didn’t you check the patient’s vitals? The most difficult of which is always, “What do you see yourself doing with your life?”
The first time I answered the “what specialty” question and wasn’t met with bubbling enthusiasm, I didn’t think much of it. I wasn’t looking for opinions, I was a young woman revved up for an exciting career and the feedback of one man was not going to slow me down. Hilary Clinton! Beyoncé! The #MeToo era! I was ready to wave my feminist flag and march into whatever specialty I damn well pleased.
“Yeah . . . I’m sure all be alright,” I replied smugly.
If only my confidence was as stubborn. What my copy of The Second Sex failed to mention was that it wouldn’t be the first comment that got me, it would be the fiftieth.
It would be my male peers calling physicians by their first name and raised eyebrows when I attempted to do the same. It was rumors of a classmate who only wants to work with male physicians, and news articles confirming a local EM attending carried the same preference. It’s thinking quietly to myself that it can’t be a coincidence all of my male peers are a “good fit” for trauma, while I should probably consider family medicine training for a little more “flexibility.”
Half way through medical school and suddenly my feminist armor didn’t feel quite as strong. It had failed to protect me from discussions of my reproductive future, and I was one more patient comment away from taping a 1. NOT A “GIRL” 2. NOT A NURSING STUDENT sign to my ID badge.
Not to say that every experience was negative. I love what I do, and I am lucky enough to have met incredible, supportive male mentors throughout my training. But their messages of encouragement can be difficult to appreciate amidst a mountain of subtleties informing me otherwise. Medicine, media, and the local hospital’s promotional material, all seemed to convince me that the ideal physician was not an eager young woman, but a doctored-up version of Fred from Scooby-Doo. Someone outgoing, tall, with a good haircut or strong jawline, who is particularly good at giving other people instructions. I felt compelled to mold my own leadership style after this feigned image of confidence and bravado, regardless of what felt comfortable for me.
Until I walked into the first hospital room where standing at the foot of bed was not Fred – or any other male character for that matter – it was Velma.
Intelligent, prepared, thoughtful. Lightning fast but always in touch with her patient in a grander context. Rarely the loudest voice in the room because she didn’t need to be, everyone on the team was already listening. Her quiet leadership left the trauma bay that day and planted an unshakable drive in the forefront of my brain. I wasn’t watching another attending or successful career woman from afar, I was watching where I could be in fifteen years.
Having female mentors for medical students is important. Groundbreaking I know, but hear me out. At the onset of medical school I was convinced that an awareness of my identity meant representation was something that would not affect me, and I was wrong. I am not immune to sexism or self-doubt – no one is – and when faced with both having someone I identified with to reaffirm my own potential was the best form of encouragement I could receive.
Because the next time someone tells me “it’s a boy’s club,” I have living breathing evidence that there are people who came before me changing the culture that came before them. That the next time someone forgets what I am interested in and assumes it is OB (not because of my outstanding prenatal skills) I can remember an attending who weathered those comments and went on to teach me to do the same. And when it comes time for me to select a specialty it will be because it’s something I am passionate about and something I am good at, not because it is something that I think is possible.
I know it’s possible. I already have the proof.
Now let’s make sure that proof keeps on coming.