Just because you’re a doctor or a nurse, that doesn’t mean you’re safe from harassment in the workplace. There are moments of sexism, big and small, that women in medicine have to deal with on a regular basis. The smaller moments, which are less reported and more common, become just another part of the job. These are those stories — and it should be noted that all of the women who contributed chose to do so anonymously for fear of losing their jobs.
“I know a girl who was once handed the suction in the operating room and told to, ‘Suck it like the whore [you] know you are.’ The surgeon apparently does this a lot to females — from nurses to med students to residents — and thinks that it’s funny. One girl in my year complained and he took it down a notch.”
“When I was a medical student, I was assigned to work a 12-hour shift in the emergency room with an attending physician — a male — who was incredibly crude. Most of the shift was tolerable, but about two-thirds of the way through, he started to tell this joke about how he had once treated a Jewish woman who told him she needed to hurry to get home to blow the shofar, to which he (supposedly) replied: ‘You have to go home and blow the chauffeur? Wow, he’s one lucky guy!’ He yukked it up and repeated the punch line over and over, clearly very proud of himself.
By that time I really couldn’t take any more of him, so when he went to check on a patient, I left. Not the most mature or responsible way to handle the situation, but the man wasn’t teaching me any medicine, only how to keep a straight face when feeling outraged and disgusted.”
“I’m a psychiatric nurse, and when I worked in Florida, there were a few incidents that were overtly sexist. Both involved male doctors having affairs with female nurses. In one incident, a male cardiologist was discovered having sex with two female nurses in an empty procedure room. The nurses were both fired. The doctor is still working for the hospital and in private practice.
The male doctor in question was respected by his colleagues and flirty with some of the prettier nurses; he eventually married a nurse. It was like all was forgiven because he was handsome and charming and male and his patients loved him. I actually googled his name yesterday and he is still listed in a prominent cardiology practice in Florida.”
“I was in a specialized nursing field and we were short staffed when our co-worker left on maternity leave. One of our doctors wanted his friend to work with us even though the person had little experience as a nurse. I’ll call him Ted. The doctor told him, ‘They’re just a bunch of women who don’t know anything, so you will be manager in six months.’
This guy actually was chauvinistic enough to relate this to me, his preceptor. I looked him squarely in the eye and told him, ‘I’ve been doing this for 15 years. You will never learn what I have forgotten and you can tell your friend that too.’
He learned only what he needed to function and quit after two years because he thought he could go anywhere after working in our office. I warned him not to go because he still did not have enough clinical expertise to work a regular floor. He wound up as a night nurse in a nursing home. Yikes. Too proud to listen to a mere woman!”
“Medical students get regular evaluations on their performance in the hospital. During one evaluation session when I was in medical school, I received some shocking feedback. Rather than receiving constructive criticism on my knowledge, skill, or anything useful at all to my growth into becoming a doctor, I was merely told that I needed to ‘smile more’ and be more ‘approachable.’
What about my ability to suture or present at rounds or how well I knew my patient’s history? Or any other actual good measure of a good doctor? There is no way a male med student would ever have received the feedback to ‘smile more.’ Why am I judged by these completely different standards? Instead of substantial advice, I was told that I needed to work on my appearance. Why do I need to appear ‘nice’ if I am a good doctor and provide amazing care?”
“Nowadays I don’t really experience any overt sexism, but there are subtle issues that are ongoing. Some doctors have a reputation for being verbally aggressive to staff if the staff member has made an error; this is usually put down to the doctor’s cranky disposition. I remember one incident between a female nurse and a female doctor, but all the others were with male docs and female nurses. I can’t recall a single incident in which a male nurse was dressed down in public.
The other issue I’ve noticed is that, although nursing remains a female-dominated profession, there is a disproportionate percentage of male nurses in leadership positions. I’ve been through eight nurse managers and four have been male. The hospital I currently work at has had a restructuring, with both the director of nursing and our ED nurse manager being replaced by men. It’s as though there is a glass ceiling even in jobs that are primarily female.”
“Before I went to vet school, I worked as a vet assistant with a male veterinarian. He was always super nice, a very compassionate guy, and great with animals — I’d always planned on going to vet school and he became a role model for me. After a few months of working there, though, I started to notice him being very touchy feely with the female technicians — rubbing their shoulders kind of thing.
Years later, when I was applying to vet school, I got back in touch with him because I needed a recommendation letter. He asked me to type something up and he would look it over. As I was typing at a desk in the clinic, he started to rub my shoulders, which was annoying, but I was sadly used to it. Then his hand started migrating further down toward my breasts. There was no one there to witness it. No one there to prevent it. I was afraid if I said something, he wouldn’t give me the recommendation. I kept readjusting myself in the chair to try and make him stop, and after a few minutes, he finally did stop. At the time, I knew he was trying to see how far he could go, but he was the only person I could get a recommendation from. I just sat silently and had to endure it. It was so demeaning and upsetting, especially since I’d looked up to him for years. It was the last thing I ever expected him to do. And that was the last interaction I ever had with him. Never saw him again.”