The Ugly Truth: Persistent Sexism in Medicine

female surgeons face subtle sexism in the workplace.
female surgeons face subtle sexism in the workplace.
Elise Barney, DO, discusses the subtleties of modern sexism in medicine in a candid interview.

A candid interview with Elise Barney, DO, on a sometimes subtle, but corrosive problem that deserves everyone’s attention.

Joel Cooper, DO: In your opinion, what are the most prominent examples of sexism that you have personally experienced?

Elise Barney, DO: I first experienced sexism in medical school when I was doing my surgical rotations. I remember being fascinated with surgery and expressing an interest in being a surgeon. 

Yet, I can’t count how many times I was questioned — by men and women, as well as by physicians and nurses — about how I was going to do this and still have a family. I was discouraged. I was advised to do a more “family or female-friendly” specialty, and repeatedly admonished that “It’s so hard — are you sure you want to do this?”

I was even told that I would have to make a choice between being a surgeon and having a family. I often wondered if any of my male medical-student counterparts were asked these same belittling questions.

Also, while on my surgical rotations, it wasn’t unusual for the male surgeons to make sexual comments about female patients or nurses. This was considered regular surgeon “locker room talk” and was basically accepted as the norm.

Then I remember starting my internship and the excitement of being called “doctor.” Nevertheless, time and time again I would walk into a patients’ room in the morning while doing my rounds, and if he or she was on the phone I would hear, “I should go. The nurse just came in the room.”

This was only a mild nuisance compared to what came next. For the next 3 years, for some reason the nurses decided that they would be as sweet and helpful as possible to all the male residents while completely ignoring the female residents. Perhaps I’m exaggerating a little bit here, but not that much.

For example, while I was on my ICU rotations, the female nurses would flirt with the male residents and pull out the residency photo roster to go through it and see who the “eligible bachelors” were. Several of them even had affairs, while others married some of the residents or attending physicians. 

We female residents could barely get the nurses to talk to us! Not only was this disrespectful, but it also compromised appropriate patient care.

In my last year of residency, my boyfriend was a radiology resident at a nearby program. Once we went to dinner with some of his fellow residents — all men — and an older male attending physician. I was the only woman present. The conversation centered around how much they disliked women in the workplace. 

They shared stories that bad-mouthed female radiologists, complaining that they “wouldn’t have any problems” if the radiologists were men. It was so disheartening. I felt like I had stepped back into the 1950s. How could this even be a topic in 2010? I thought this battle was won decades ago.

Now as an attending, I don’t know anyone who would be bold enough anymore to say such things around me. But I still get patients thinking I am their nurse. 

And many patients call me by my first name instead of addressing me as Dr Barney. I have no idea where this comes from, but it’s very disturbing. It makes me feel stripped of my title, nor do I know any male physicians to whom this happens. One more example: Every single time I go to the store, café, or anywhere in my scrubs, I am asked if I am a nurse. I would love just once to be asked if I am a doctor getting on or off a shift. Just once!

This article originally appeared on Medical Bag