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Member Perspective: Sexism is Alive and Well, Unfortunately

By Sherry L. Blumenthal, MD, Chair, Women Physicians Caucus, PAMED

"Guys will come up and say, I didn't understand until I had a daughter."
            – Billie Jean King

I read an interview with Billie Jean King about her new book Battle of the Sexes, concerning her 1973 tennis match with Bobby Riggs, described in the article as a "male chauvinist." Many who read this may not have been alive at this time, but the match was highly publicized, and King won! She was a superb athlete and played with her brain, while Riggs played with his ego.

 PAMED members can click here to learn more about the Women Physicians Caucus.

I started to think about all of the current examples of sexism and misogyny in medicine, and some of the articles I read recently. Unfortunately, medicine is no different from most fields when it comes to sexism. Three women who worked for Google sued because they were hired at a lower salary level than men of equal qualifications and years of experience.

Two women doctors in Charlottesville are suing their hospital for equal wages. The Women's Law Project in Pennsylvania has filed an Amicus brief against a lawsuit, which in Philadelphia, is delaying implementation of a law requiring transparency in salaries and prohibiting prospective employers from asking about previous salary. 

An actress, Amber Tamblyn, wrote: "The women I know, myself included, are done, though, playing the (credentials) game. We are learning that the more we open our mouths, the more we become a choir. And the more we are a choir, the more the tune is forced to change" in response to discrimination, sexual harassment, and condescension in Hollywood. Some believe that one of the reasons Hillary Clinton lost the presidential race was tied to her gender. Many men (and some women, unfortunately) still have difficulty accepting a woman as President or as their boss."

It is surprising that this phenomenon, which was described eloquently by Josephine Baker, MD in her 1939 book Fighting for Life, revealed the reaction of six male physicians when she became Commissioner of Health and founded the Bureau of Child Health in New York City.

The culture has not really changed. She founded the Bureau after working to develop programs to decrease mortality of infants in the city. She was remarkably innovative and successful.

The men, who were colleagues, tendered their resignations en masse when she was appointed commissioner, stating that they could not work under the supervision of a woman!

She convinced them to give her one month and she named each of them head of a division in the department. They stayed! Dr. Baker's book is well worth a read; she was a remarkable woman who transformed pediatrics and successfully weathered sexism. Unfortunately, the strides she made are not universal.

It is surprising that many men (and women) think that we have wage equity. A study published in Doximity showed that the wage discrepancy for women physicians in PA is 35 percent!

Those who have read the numerous articles that I have posted on the WPC Facebook Group Page know about the wide-spread gaps in leadership and wages. A friend told me of an incident in his department at a hospital in Pennsylvania where two women pediatric radiologists discovered that they were making 25 percent less than male colleagues with equal experience and the same work schedules!

One of them went to the Chair and requested equal compensation or she would take legal action. Their salaries were finally adjusted giving them parity.

As I've read in many articles and have had similar observations, women are recognized less often than men in meetings (and in the classroom), the fact that we have childbearing potential (whether we choose to have children or not) affects our salaries (Doximity 2017), and that women who are assertive are considered too aggressive when exhibiting behavior considered appropriate for men in the same position (New York Times, Sept 17, 2017).

We also know that the sexism does not only come from men, but from other women who have not become empowered or self-aware enough to be comfortable with equality. This must change.

Burnout is more common in women physicians due to a somewhat hostile environment and the fact that many of us bear the major burden of child-rearing and the home, even in two-physician families. (Burnout, A Female Physician's Perspective, Doximity, Aug. 22, 2017, "The Impact of Parenting, AMA Wire, Sept. 2017.)  Karen Rizzo MD, an ENT who was president of PAMED, stated that the "secret to being successful as a woman in medicine is a supportive spouse."

Women physicians have to support each other and stand against discrimination together. It is insufferable that we still face discrimination in our own field while we are 47 percent of medical students in the U.S.!

What I find particularly interesting is that men who feel a woman has been promoted instead of them, complain about discrimination! One colleague was in competition for Department Chair and perceived that the committee wanted to hire a woman. He was vocal about the issue. I asked if she was doing a good job and he admitted that she was great.

A colleague of mine who was a lawyer before going to medical school remembers that when the partners of the law firm had a meeting at the Union League in Philadelphia, she had to enter through a side door and was not allowed to be a member! Dr. Josephine Baker was limited to one residency choice because it was the only one in New York that would accept women.

And Women's Medical College was founded because no women were allowed in the existing medical schools. Jefferson Medical College, my alma mater, the last medical school in the U.S. to accept women, did so by court order in 1961! Shortly afterwards, Women's Medical College was ordered to accept men. The inequality for men did not last very long!

"Together we are stronger." We have to fight as a group to change some of the dialogue in medicine to issues involving women, work-life balance, health issues unique to women, wage equality, and advancement in leadership.

Every man has or had a mother, many have daughters in medicine, and it is interesting that the latter are much more aware of the issues concerning women physicians. Ignorance can longer be an excuse. It is our responsibility to educate our colleagues that the sexism and inequality continues. And then we need to do something about it!

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