When I went to residency in orthopedic surgery, I was only the third woman to ever graduate from my program. In other words, with my colleagues and attendings, I was surrounded by men. Every step of the way, my internal dialogue was, “I am different, but I want to fit in.” At first, this meant that I tried so hard not to be particularly feminine. I made sure to buy clothes that I thought reflected the people around me: nothing revealing, no dresses, not even a touch of playful or flowery. I wanted to look the part, or what I thought the part looked like based on the people I saw inhabiting it around me. I had to be hyper-vigilant about my femininity.
To belong, I would basically go along with anything. This meant that at just about every conference, night out, or industry sponsored event I attended, I always ended up with the men in a strip club. It was the culture of the program. That’s just what they did. And rather than question whether it was right or wrong, or what it said about their ability to respect a woman as a peer in their field, I went along.
Uncomfortable as I may have been in those environments, I took it as some kind of twisted victory. I would say to myself, “I am here. They let me in.” The second part of that thought was even more naive: “They let me into their club. So, they can’t really be discriminating against me.” I felt like the guys looked at me in a different way than they did the women they threw dollars at on nights off. Like I was one of them.
There have been times earlier in my career where I felt singled out for being a woman — once when I was in my first year out of surgery training, my boss, the owner and founder of a long established practice in his mid-sixties, gave everyone Christmas gifts and bought me a little black dress. Then, he made me try it on for everyone. Another time, I was told I could not be in the doctors’ lounge because it was the men’s room (it was connected to the men’s room, but it was also the DOCTORS’ lounge, and I am a doctor). Even though, on occasion, I have thought I passed as “one of the guys,” the truth is I am not one, and my career has suffered because of it.
This was only further revealed to me recently. I served as the chief of orthopedics for three years. I then got pregnant and when I returned I was told leadership assumed I would not be on site enough to be the chief, so the honor was given to someone else. Two people held the role after I was demoted from it. First came another woman, and then a man.
When the man was given the job, he not only received the title bump, which is what the other woman and I had, but he also got a raise to go with the increase in his rank. When I heard that, I felt taken advantage of. No one had told me in my over three years of doing the job (nor the other woman, I imagine) that these jobs could even come with financial increases. I had felt honored and proud to be a leader, using my different skill sets, and doing the job so well that two of my male colleagues had written letters in support of me keeping the role. I was there, after the work day, strategizing and working hard for the department. But, I wouldn’t have done it for free if I had known I could've been paid for putting in the extra work. If I had known I should've been paid.
No one told me, and my boss and organization were fine undervaluing my contributions and keeping me in the dark. It is like I was let in the door and allowed to be an orthopedic surgeon, but the guys still have the power because they have a network. They have someone else saying to them, “Hey, hey did you know this,” or “make sure you ask for this.” I did not have that. I had no mentor; no leaders invested in my career development.
Too many medical specialties operate this way. Women are only accepted into the “in group” if we allow ourselves to disappear into the background. If you’re brought along on team “bonding” nights at strip clubs — you may think you are on the inside, finally, but in reality you’re not. It's time we change the way we bond, the way we work, and the way leaders are chosen and promoted. Time is up on the old way.
This essay is a part of our exclusive coverage of Time's Up Healthcare, which launches March 1. Read more, here.