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Sexism in Medicine : The Eternal Confusion and The Innocent Mistake

Sexism in medicine : The eternal confusion and the innocent mistake.

Srimathi Gopalakrishnan

I came across a blog post yesterday that talked about how female physicians have been repeatedly mistaken for and addressed as nurses or other health care professionals for ages now. Click here to read the article. It says, “The persistence of sexism despite rising female representation indicates that the professional membership alone is insufficient”. I completely agree and I would be bold enough to say that the statement is still incomplete.

We must understand that though increasing the numbers is an important way to fight the sexism, reducing the issue to just representative minority would be similar to treating the symptoms and not the disease. On taking a deeper look, one will realize that the real problem is the underlying patriarchy that stems into various forms of sexism, for example, the quick assumption that a female health care professional can only be a nurse - the situation in question.

To address this issue, the authors suggest 7 strategies to the female physicians who find themselves mistaken for a nurse. These strategies mainly talk about how a female physicians can politely assert their disagreement with how they are being addressed. Interestingly, I was driven to draw parallels between this article and the school of thought that in the fight against oppression, onus of educating the oppressor lies with the oppressed.

Dr. Migita D’cruz, a Senior Resident currently doing her DM in Geriatric Psychiatry at NIMHANS says, “The article talks about what we (female physicians) can do when we feel isolated and vulnerable. But the onus of defense is placed on us (female physicians), an internal rather than an external locus of control”.

It is interesting that one of the strategies suggested here is ‘Male solidarity’. It says that a quick response from a credible male voice(from a male colleague) can be quite convincing for some patients.

Dr. Nuzrath Jahan, an MPH research scholar at the ICMR-NIE, Chennai, makes a striking observation about this strategy and feels that it seems to indirectly suggest that the males are superior and their validation is more powerful.

We do not deny the significance that the solidarity of our male allies holds in this fight. However, the problem is that a male voice is expected to add credibility to our hard earned qualification, leading to a feeling of pointlessness to the endless toil.

As notable as this strategy is, we must acknowledge the humongous lacuna of gender sensitivity in the Indian medical education setup. There is very little space given for men in medicine to be educated on gender and other sociological likes. This can be partly attributed to the sexism propagated across generations, from the senior members of the fraternity to the medical students and young doctors in the years of medical education. And so, the responsibility of sensitizing the male counterparts falls on the shoulders of the already burdened women in medicine.

I feel the need to register that it isn’t an easy job either. I can vividly recollect when a male colleague told me that it was okay for me to be called ‘Sister’ because the ultimate aim is patient care. He also said that even he was called ‘Brother’ and it wasn’t a problem. I am still astonished at how easily and widely the sexism is trivialized and appropriated by the privileged.

This line of thought leads us to another important question - Would this have been the case if men were to be at the receiving end of this discrimination? Would we have allowed it this far? It is a rant for another day.

Though we agree that we all share equal responsibility in this fight, the reality is highly skewed. At this juncture, I only have two suggestions.

1. When addressing a female health worker if you find yourself assuming she is a nurse, consider taking a moment to first ask, “ Ma’am, are you a nurse or a doctor?”.

2. Dear male colleagues, try to understand that in spite of you treating your female counterparts as equals, you are always colored superior in the eyes of the patients and care givers. Try not to take advantage of it. Instead, take a step back and follow our lead. It is okay.

Note : Information on other resources available for medical students


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