I want to be a doctor (sexism in medicine is not a myth).

I want to be a doctor. I’ve known this forever. In the back of my mind, I’ve always imagined it to be difficult, but not too difficult -just the reasonable amount of marathon studying, never-ending stress and running around as you might expect in any postgraduate course. But life has been telling me that it will never be that easy, even when I am a certified doctor already. That one of my advocacies of choice –feminism– will still permeate this part of my identity. If I do get in, pass and advance from medical school, I will never be just a doctor. I will never join the ranks of names which people can easily accept, appreciate, applaud and then recommend.

I will be a female doctor. I will be called and branded ‘doktora’ by Filipinos. I will be an entirely different beast of qualifications, intentions and capabilities, unnecessarily prefixed by my sex.  I will exist as a preferred option by female patients for more ‘delicate’ cases and unwanted by conservative males for the same reason. I will be judged by my dress, by the clearness of my face and the neatness of my hair, by the fit of my white jacket and the noise of my purse as I walk down a hospital corridor. Assuming I do become a doctor.

I have accepted this.

I’ve always known sexism existed in the field of medicine. This isn’t a post about why I want to become a doctor despite the struggles that come with it, or what could be done to counter the biased narratives that exist. This post only illustrates how sexism exists in my desired profession. Why we can’t ignore it.

I first heard about it in the context of skewed admission opportunities in prestigious medical schools in my country. But I brushed it aside at first –it was all hearsay. After all, how could something as backwards as sexism exist in places as esteemed as premiered learning institutions? How could established doctors and professionals and teachers, who have undergone years of training and education, be so removed from progressive society?

In hindsight I think I overestimated the transformative power of standardized education and underestimated the combined effects of media, culture and years of tradition on people’s codes of behavior. Because sexism in medicine is not a myth. 

I’ve read how women’s health concerns are less widely known and studied in research, deprioritized because they are somehow harder to diagnose and treat, and sociopolitically limited to reproductive issues because “women are mothers and wives first, before they are human”. How even up until recently, medical research has assumed that the way a common disease works in a man is largely the same way it would manifest in a woman of any age. Wrong diagnoses and treatments critically endanger women.  I’ve read accounts of people whose legitimate medical concerns were brushed aside simply because the voice speaking out was that of a girl’s. (Links: Integrating the Gender Perspective in Medical and Health Education and Research; Endometriosis)

I read it next in terms of the gender-coding that exists in industries; that is, male-dominated industries are better paid and more recognized, while female-dominated industries are worse off comparatively. It’s not because women go for low-paying and undervalued jobs intentionally (who would?). It’s because every job a woman enters automatically becomes devalued by virtue of her womanhood. This reminds me of how cooking at home is a woman’s job, but strangely, being a Michelin-starred restaurant chef or host of a primetime cooking competition (Masterchef? Iron whatever?) is a man’s job.

Women are expected to take care of bruises at home, but aren’t allowed to direct conversations on public health. In USA 2014, women comprise 34.3% of all physicians and surgeons but only 15.9% of medical school deans. The pattern remains the same today, though the numbers may vary. (Links: Fact Sheet: The Women’s Leadership Gap; The Underrepresentation of Women in Leadership Positions at U.S. Medical Schools)

For example, while being a doctor exists as one of the most sought-after professions in the West, in Asia and in the Philippines, being a doctor in Russia isn’t as lauded, privileged or well-paid. Why? Simple. It’s because it’s a woman’s job, a profession apparently naturally inclined to a woman’s “caring instincts”. Being a doctor is treated as a blue-collar job. (Links: Doctors: Impoverished in Russia, fabulously wealthy in USA; Patriarchy’s Magic Trick: How Anything Perceived as Women’s Work Immediately Sheds Its Value; In Russia, most doctors are low-paid women –I’ve yet to find a more recent source for this particular example, by the way. So take the meaning but burn the details.)

It’s all too easy to imagine. There are two candidates who have the same credentials, the same experiences, the same level of knowledge, and yet one would go straight on to the administrative track while the other would be in tier one for an unimaginable period of time. Or if in many ways a female candidate is obviously better, the deciding factor somehow becomes sex and the tables are turned on logic. Bafflingly, sex is worth more than three pages of resumé combined.

Then I read about it again. When women do successfully enter the field, sexism still exists and affects their professional lives concretely. As proven by numerous studies, women in the field receive lower pay, more grunt work, lesser opportunities for advancement and specialization, and less professional acknowledgement. They even experience sexual harassment. (Links: Women doctors are underpaid and undervalued. And it’s not a mystery why; The Boy’s Club of Science: Most New Doctors Are Women, But Sexism Keeps Them Away From The Lab; Sexism in Medicine: Try Not to Talk About It)

And disgusting workplace dynamics.

This opinion piece by Kay Rivera (Link: Pass the scalpel, darling), shared by a friend on Facebook, paints the ugly and chilling truth of sexism in the Philippine medical field. I can never understand why it’s so hard to treat others as human beings on equal footing, removed from the politics of sex and gender. Well then. To quote. (Bolded mine).

The sexism follows me all the way back to the call room, where male residents call for a female intern to assist in the next surgery: pretty, if you please, to mollify some bigwig—“Yung maganda ha, pampalamig ng ulo ng consultant!”  It follows me as I hurdle the obstacles to a slot in training, deflecting questions from prospective bosses about my sex life. It is the cloud that hangs over me as I walk home from the hospital, pretending not to hear the tambay in Ermita’s red-light district as they throw catcalls my way; it fuels my silent rage as my very intelligent, very enlightened, very gay male co-intern tells me I should take it as a compliment that I am being catcalled in the first place. As though I should be grateful.

It is there, still, when doors are opened for me in the hospital or when I am spared some dirty tasks by virtue of my gender. I have not yet found an eloquent way to say that I would trade these small, “chivalrous” favors for the ability to be seen as nothing different—nothing better and nothing worse—than the men next to me.

I’ve always known sexism existed in the field of medicine. But as in all things in life, I remain (sincerely unapologetic and brutally myself) optimistic.

Cheers to the future.


5 Comments Add yours

  1. absolutelyelsewhere says:

    Hello there! This is Kay Rivera who wrote one of the articles you linked to in this entry. I just wanted to drop you a line to encourage you to still pursue medicine. Sexism exists in any field. The advantage, in medicine, is that you are frequently surrounded by women who are (to put it bluntly) intelligent enough to at least recognize that casual misogyny and a deep-rooted culture of sexism exists, so that when you call someone out, other women (and even men, as demonstrated in my article) will be there to support you, which may not be true in every field. Keep fighting.

    1. Hi! Thanks so much for your article, for this comment and for your encouragement! I’m definitely still on track towards medicine, and I do think that the world’s landscape has been changing when it comes to sexism across the board. Just hoping that more and more people join the fight. :)

      1. absolutelyelsewhere says:

        I hope you apply to UP Medicine. I would love to have you as a junior. Good luck!

      2. That’s the dream! Thank you!

  2. Things certainly have changed, at least where I live. I was unfortunate in that I developed cancer in both testicles and had to have them removed. The only surgeons available were women. At first the idea made me uncomfortable, but I realized that a doctor is a doctor regardless of gender. After all, don’t male doctors perform operations like mastectomy?

Say something back.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s