Friday, September 27, 2013

The art of being a a man's world

I don't talk enough about this and I should as I seem to constantly find myself in environments where I'm the only female (or the closest thing to one) and should own up to my responsibility of being a prime example of woman in male-dominated fields more often. (I'm still on my way to my next male-dominated profession, but practice makes perfect and hopefully by the time I get to where I want to be I'll have had enough practice.) At any rate, I recently found this blog by a female surgeon and her post about Men in Surgery was poignantly sardonic and wittingly ironic. (She makes the case for why surgery is a woman's field and that men are the minority.) Behind the irony, however, lies a great deal of truth about what many women face whilst pursuing careers in predominantly male fields.

I'm lucky to have an older sister who is already an ENT surgeon (one of the most competitive specialties even among surgery.) There are scores of schmucks who consistently discourage women from fulfilling their full potential by scaring them off with comments such as "you'll never match, surgery is super competitive" or worse "why don't you try a profession that's more economical for women than medicine?" or actually the worst is "what will you do if you don't succeed?" (a scary question for anyone, but in my experience no one has ever dared to ask that same question upfront to any male I've worked with.) Being related to a prime example of someone who has surpassed those comments and still accomplished what she wanted to pursue, I recognize the importance to just deflect and dissipate those remarks along the way. That doesn't mean that they don't sting a little and I'm not sure what the appropriate responses to those questions should be, but I sense that keeping quiet or seriously responding to those are not the best approach to rectify the mentality. 

What I would like to shed light on is (1) why are those comments or questions considered appropriate at all? (2) Why have those comments/questions only been directed towards women, and lastly (3) what really is the best way to respond to men who ask those questions without coming off as the PMS-ing b*tch or the weak and inferior/compliant underdog? What I love so much about the Men in Surgery post was that it actually turned the tables and illustrates the fact that sometimes, even in a "man's field", women often have the advantage (either biological or otherwise) and the fact that we must work so hard just to belong is completely preposterous when the facts defy any notion that women don't belong in the field.

My overarching question really nests in the inquiry of what is the art of being a lady when you are in a field that's seen so few and does not know how to break its insularity? Sure one answer is to just strap on boots, stuff your pants, and act like a man. The alternative is preserving your identity and your second X chromosome and hopefully addressing issues politely yet firmly as they arise. I think it's time to recognize that we have a third option and that's being upfront about what's appropriate in the first place before things become hostile or uncomfortable.

It's been a number of years since I left the engineering/defense industry behind, but my experience there has stuck with me since specifically because of the stark contrast of working for a corporation versus being in medicine. Believe it or not, there are things I've encountered in medicine that would never be acceptable in a corporation. There are measures set in place to ensure that those things do not occur or escalate in companies. I attribute that to our female predecessors in corporate America that addressed those things upfront in the previous decade to set the standard of how women deserve to be treated equally in the workforce. (I was not aware that those efforts did not apply to every industry. Silly me.) This act alone made working in an industry as conventionally male as the military an experience that I look back on rather fondly.

Don't get me wrong, I love medicine, all it stands for, all it aspires to be, all it can do for people and more. I firmly believe that medicine has the power to not only change individuals, but also to collectively change a society for the better. That is why I gave everything up to apply to medical school and become a doctor. I'm just wondering if there will ever be a day where it can make a little more room for women to be women in an OR without being discredited or discouraged. That responsibility rests with the men in the field, the women that are already there, and the women who aspire to be a part of it. To make real contributions to humanity the stride is collective and involves everyone's willingness to move forward and break ridiculous traditions and mindsets that women don't belong or don't have the ability or aptitude to belong.

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