The Ugly Truth: Persistent Sexism in Medicine

Dr Cooper: How are female physicians and female physicians-in-training affected by this sexism? That is, on a personal, professional, and emotional level?

Dr Barney: These experiences drive women to constantly feel the need to prove ourselves. It is disheartening after enduring our extensive training to not be accepted as “doctor.” It is sad for me to still be fighting this battle.

I’ve also heard and read story after story of women being paid less, being promoted less often, and being passed over for jobs. I have not experienced it personally, but I have no doubt that it occurs.

But perhaps the most upsetting part is the denial by both men and women of the existence of sexism. If we can’t acknowledge it, then we will never make any progress toward overcoming it.

Dr Cooper: Would you say that sexism in medicine today is as blatant or pervasive as it once was?

Dr Barney: I wholeheartedly admit that modern sexism is now more subtle. We are not being beaten or denied the chance to get into medical school. And most of the time, the sexism is not malicious or intentional. What irks me is the belief that just because sexism is no longer extreme, women are supposed to be happy and accept the status quo as “good enough.”

I wonder why it’s too much to ask to be treated the same? Almost every female medical colleague I know has experienced sexism in one way or another. The subtlety of sexism nowadays makes it harder for women to get acknowledgment and recognition in the medical community.

Dr Cooper: Numerous studies have shown that female physicians are just as well trained as male physicians, maybe even more so. Some studies have even stated that women make better physicians than men — not just in terms of “bedside manner” and empathy, but also clinically. So why does discrimination and sexism in medicine linger or persist, in your opinion?

Dr Barney: That’s the million-dollar question. Part of it is a global comment on American society. I don’t think it’s a problem unique to medicine. However, the medical field is behind other industries in a lot of cultural aspects.

We are lagging in terms of regulating work hours and wellness. We are behind in getting help for physicians suffering from addiction and depression. We are behind in demanding better pay, and we continue to tolerate pay cuts despite our rising costs.

Dr Cooper: What do you think it will take to overcome sexism in medicine? What solutions can you think of?

Dr Barney: When I did my new-employee training, I had to watch videos about harassment in the workplace. I was surprised to learn that harassment is whatever the victim feels it is. 

So the burden of proof is on the victim. And the burden is on all of us in the workplace to make sure that harassment doesn’t happen.

I think we can apply this attitude of tolerance of such harassment to American society as a whole, and the tolerance needs to change first before anything else will. There have recently been several “women marches” followed by tons of people on Facebook — both men and women — bashing the women marching and ridiculing them. Comments were along the lines of “how dare women complain, because these women could be in burqas getting beaten in Afghanistan.”

I even saw comments that we have the luxury of walking around “half naked” in sexy clothes. How ridiculous! Do we lack such depth that Americans think women can be characterized only two ways in this society — either covered up or as sex objects?

The women who marched must have felt that there was a problem that shouldn’t be ignored. We need to listen and understand their concerns, rather than deny that the concerns exist or put the burden of proof on the victims. If women are marching at all in 2017, then clearly we are not equal. That is the proof.

Dr Cooper: What can your male medical colleagues do to help in the battle against sexism?

Dr Barney: I think it’s very simple, really. We want respect and professionalism. We just want to be treated as the doctors that we are.

Dr Cooper: Thank you very much for a very interesting and enlightening interview. I’m sure this will help to open our eyes to the unfortunate persistence of sexism in medicine and elsewhere.

Dr Barney: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts with Medical Bag readers.

About Elise Barney, DO: Dr Barney is board certified in internal medicine and nephrology. She received her medical degree at Arizona College of Osteopathic Medicine (AZCOM), Midwestern University in Glendale, Arizona. She completed her internal medicine residency at Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center and at the VA Medical Center, both in Phoenix. She completed her fellowship in nephrology and hypertension at UCLA-Olive View Medical Center in California. She is a clinical assistant professor in internal medicine at AZCOM and at The University of Arizona College of Medicine in Phoenix. She is currently a staff nephrologist at the VA Medical Center in Phoenix.

About Joel Cooper, DO: Dr Cooper is a contributing writer for The Medical Bag and a board-certified family physician currently working in urgent care in the Phoenix area.

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This article originally appeared on Medical Bag