A while back, when my post about South African Public Hospitals was popular, someone recommended I write about women in healthcare. I chose not to because at the time I just didn’t feel really strongly about it. I suppose I kind of wanted to believe that there was no sexism in South African medicine, the same way I tried convincing people (when I was twelve, mind you) that there was no more racism in South Africa.
I mean, guys. There are more females than males in most classes at my medical school. Why would there be issues?? Anyway, the #YesAllWomen hashtag from a while ago had me thinking some, and then I tweeted this, and then I realised, “OMG, I have something to say.”
This is real, by the way. My friends and I have grown so tired of being asked how old we are, where we live, and whether we have boyfriends by patients. I have never seen a male colleague being so blatantly hit on by a (non-psychotic) patient. (Not saying it doesn’t happen, but…) And the only time a doctor has taken our concerns seriously was when the perpetrators were psychiatric patients. Because, you know, that means they’re being sexually inappropriate. But when the offending patient is not a psych patient, we are told that it’s “normal”.
I learned in third year that because I am a female, most of my patients will refer to me as “sister” or “nurse”. And I also saw how male nurses, no matter how proudly they displayed their epaulets, were referred to as “doctor”. Incidentally, I’m not insulted by being called nurse. Nurses are awesome and there’s a great post about that here.
But the first time I realised something is not quite right was in one of my first SI-rotations last year. We were a group of girls rounding in trauma post-call with a senior registrar (who had been known to say dickish things before). I can’t remember what the situation was, because I was zoning out (post-call, as I said), when I heard him saying,
“You have to ask yourself why you’re doing medicine. Because you’d better not be taking up a spot in your class just to leave later and become a pretty little housewife and raise kids.”
I haven’t done gender studies. I can’t really tell you why this pissed me off big time. But it did.
Because it’s none of your damn business why I’m studying medicine. And it’s none of your damn business if I want to pass my (pretty good) genes onto kids. And I’m not having the debate about career vs. family with you, because I’m not in the mood.
I get that with a doctor shortage, people don’t take kindly to people leaving the profession, but nobody bats an eye when a male doctor decides to do an MBA and go into business, or consult for a medical aid. Or leave clinical practice to lecture part-time and play golf the rest of the time! It comes down to the same thing, doesn’t it? Not being an active clinician. Isn’t that what everyone’s so upset about?
So, who are you to assume that because I am a woman, I plan to leave once I have my degree? And if I do decide to leave, who are you to assume that it has something to do with my genitals?
Anecdotally, Maria Phalime points out in her book, Postmortem, that it tends to be mostly females who leave the medical profession. Let’s accept that there are no official stats in this regard, but that it appears to be a trend. Instead of judging the women who leave the profession, what we should be asking ourselves (men AND WOMEN), is, “What are we doing to make the workplace safe for female colleagues?”
What are we doing to protect female doctors and nurses from sexual harassment by patients and colleagues? Because where I work, a blind eye is turned unless there is actual threatened rape. What are we doing to even the playing field, rather than perpetuating the idea that females have to PROVE their worth. Do we place the same pressure on male doctors?
Once in med school, I lodged a complaint against a consultant that was vicitimising me. I went to our course convener in tears. He commented that he had noticed that it was always the female consultants the female students complained about. And he asked, “Why are you women so mean to each other? Shouldn’t you be supporting each other?”
Shouldn’t we, indeed.
I am tired of these things. And I am tired of being asked the easy questions in ward rounds. And I am tired of seeing male students get better ward marks than me, despite them disappearing from hospital for long periods of time. And I am tired of males being “gunners”, but females being “in your face”.
So yes. There is sexism in medicine here. As there undoubtedly is in most of the workplace. At least in South Africa, your gender cannot influence your salary. But that is not enough.
As always, intelligent debate is welcome on this post. Rude and bigoted comments, however, are not. Also, my views are pretty much encapsulated by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Ted-Talk, “We Should All Be Feminists”. I highly recommend it!