Yes, Sexism in The Medical Field is Still Very Much Alive

This past summer, I was given the amazing opportunity to participate in a surgical research internship at a local hospital. The internship promised opportunities to work alongside surgeons on their current research projects as well as observe surgeries in the operating room. As a pre-medicine student, this program checked all of my boxes. I was getting research experience outside of the classroom, collaborating with surgeons and interns, and watching the daily lives of doctors across specialties. However, in no way was I expecting this experience to make me painfully aware of my gender. 

I have been pretty determined to go to medical school since even before I began college, and this frankly has not wavered. I have also been lucky enough to never have been discouraged by professors or advisors in pursuing this career. So, I guess going into the experience, I had a somewhat jaded view about gender relations within hospitals. I knew that there were still issues with discrimination but thought that for the most part, the medical field was moving forward from its patriarchal tendencies. It only took one week to prove me wrong.

At first, there were small things that caught my attention. I noticed that a majority of the surgeons, especially those older and more established in their career, were men. There were probably seven or so surgeon-led research projects that were divvied out between their interns, and only one was led by a female surgeon. In the operating room, male nurses were few and far between. This was so strikingly apparent that I even began to find myself startled when a male scrub nurse would fill in for a female. This, to some extent, I could brush off. I reminded myself that women have only recently been encouraged to enter the medical field, so of course the men outnumber the women. It was just a sign of the times. At least, I thought, no one was being sexist.

 I was wrong. 

As I got more and more comfortable with being in an operating room, I began noticing little remarks made by some of the male surgeons. Nothing outright sexist, but small comments about the nurses. One doctor mentioned to me how nurses spend so much time on their eyelashes in the morning since the masks and scrub caps cover the other areas they would put makeup on. Other doctors would light-heartedly flirt with the nurses, complimenting their appearances, and because of the hierarchy of the operating room, and the respect that surgeons demand, none of them could say anything. 

However, there is one moment that I cannot get out of my head. When my research partner and I met with our lead surgeon for the first time, he asked us the reasons behind doing our program of choice. I explained that I wanted to go to medical school and possibly become a surgeon. My partner had a different answer. She said she was considering Physician’s Assistant school because she wanted to have time for a family. 

The surgeon looked at her and said wanting to be a mom was a “cop out”.

 I remember her face going completely blank. I was shocked that this man was telling her that her dream of raising kids was a “cop out”. He went on to tell her that it's easy to be a parent and have an illustrious career; he knew this because he had done it. He was acting as if he had complete understanding of the pressures placed on women to be caregivers. What I find so funny about this looking back, is that a moment later, he was showing us pictures of his stay-at home wife oiled up in a bikini. 

Being a female research intern made me extremely aware that I was a female research intern. The female aspect of that title seemed to be what defined me, and it was the same for the female surgeons. Female surgeons were seen as women first and surgeons second. I was introduced to them largely because they were women. 

At times, it felt like others viewed their success as something achieved despite their gender. I heard many phrases such as “she did this amazing surgery and she’s a woman.” While I understand many stated this with the goal to empower, it made me painfully aware that I never heard the phrase “he’s an amazing surgeon and he’s a man.” I was never introduced to a male surgeon as a male surgeon, but every single female surgeon was introduced as a woman first and a surgeon second. 

It constantly felt like all the surgeons were assumed male until proven otherwise.

That is not to say there weren’t wonderful parts of my experience as well. I met some very inspiring surgeons, both female and male, and felt even more drawn to the world of medicine. It was comforting to see that most of the sexist remarks and practices I saw were coming from the older generations. The gender lines seemed less distinct among the younger surgeons and virtually nonexistent among the medical students. This does not excuse the moments of sexism I did see, but it left me hopeful for the next generation of healthcare providers.