Picture reference: www.lisairis.ca
I learnt a remarkable fact recently…Among the first licensed women physicians, there was an Indian woman named Anandibai Joshi, who studied Medicine in my current city, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania along with two other women, one from Syria and another from Japan. A photograph of the trio from the year 1885 has recently made its way to social media and is also being included in tours of the city. Sounds almost like the stuff fairy tales are made of, except that there was a tragic end to the story, with Dr. Joshi dying of consumption (tuberculosis) at the young age of 21.
This serves as a reminder that women have been around in this profession for a long time. Nearly 130 years later, women still find themselves clamouring for equality in medicine, in some fields more than others.
While I am convinced that competence as a physician has nothing to do with gender, there are differences in the way men and women approach various issues, and in a male-dominated world, women may not always conform to the norms that are defined largely by males, and unfortunately perceived as traits related to success.
Some of the differences that I have realized are:
(The operational word here is difference. I am not trying to say that women physicians are better or worse than their male counterparts.)
- Women tend to be perfectionists more often than men, and therefore are too hard on themselves at times. I feel many of us try to be perfect at every step of the way and sometimes get caught in issues that are perceived as insignificant by our male counterparts. On the flip side, this attention to detail may translate in to better patient care and improved patient satisfaction.
- Women are conditioned to stick to rules and regulations. I think that is largely a result of our upbringing that tries to fit girls in to molds right from the beginning, while boys are traditionally allowed more freedom. Thus women grow up to be really good at following steps methodically, but tend to be less willing to experiment than men. Again, in medicine, a lot of what we do depends upon doing the right thing the same way every single time, and women in general excel at that. Not everyone needs to be an innovator, right?
- Women are more compassionate than men. While that is a great asset when dealing with really sick patients, it also means that the stress of taking care of terminally ill patients affects us more than our male counterparts.
- I know my male colleagues always make fun of females for being “hormonal”, but it is true! We women do go through an emotional roller-coaster with our menstrual cycles! Pre-menstrual dysphoric disorder, euphemistically known as PMS, is a real condition, and affects women to different degrees. Add pregnancy in to the mix and emotions really go awry…Not just that, dealing with children and their physical and emotional needs can sometimes make us irritable and grumpy. Men who are in a more stable emotional state find it really hard to comprehend this and this emotional lability can be really detrimental to our professional lives. (I really cannot think of any positives here, and I think we really need to be cognizant of our emotional friability, and detach our actions from our emotions at those times.)
- Women are wired to seek appreciation, therefore being appreciated by co-workers, patients and subordinates is extremely important to us. Not so much for our male counterparts. In general, they don’t try to please everyone, therefore it is a lot easier for then to maintain their priorities and their sanity. Another sad truth is that women are less likely to be liked by other women in the group, while men tend to be liked equally by men and women. I think it is great if a woman can manage to earn every single person’s appreciation, but trying to win everyone over may not be possible, and one should not sweat excessively over it.
- Unfortunate as it is, women with demanding careers are still held to task for their competence as homemakers and mothers. The world never ceases to remind you in myriad, often discreet ways that you may be great at what you do outside of home, but that does not excuse you from striving to be the perfect mother..Men are not held up to similar standards of parenthood. (I am not implying that men don’t have societal norms to conform to, but overall they are judged less than women are.) Therefore, I feel it is extremely important to be clear about your career goals, and how they fit in with your aspirations as a parent. Not everyone is cut from the same cloth, and not every woman physician needs to bake cookies for her kids….
Having said all this, I must confess that I have constantly tried to emulate my most successful mentors, almost all of whom are males. Only recently have I begun to accept that I am a woman, and wired differently from men. I just need to be comfortable with these differences (with the caveats mentioned)….