Feminism in medicine; its about us, and the society we care for

Medicine has always been a profession of “gunners”, a group of individuals who are independent and driven, who have chosen a life that will confront and challenge them every single day. This is true of men and women in medicine. But, it also may be a reason why feminism struggles to be seen as relevant.

 

To all males reading this, keep reading. This is about how our generation of medical professionals, gender irrelevant, can help change something for the better in an industry that we are fiercely proud to be a part of.

Feminism is a response to a society historically dominated by men. This is fact. It is concerned with addressing the forces, some conscious and others unconscious, that are stacked against women succeeding and thriving in our modern world.

And although many big battles have been won in Australia; the vote, protection from rape in marriage, a female Prime Minister, there are many ways in which feminism is still extremely relevant. Violence against women and the pay gap are just the most salient ways gender inequality can still be seen in our society.

It is also, unfortunately, still extremely relevant in Medicine.

For driven, independent, and fortunate women, such as my female peers, and myself, feminism offers a particular conundrum. How do we discuss and support feminism, and recognize it as ever-relevant factor in the lives of women, without seeing all of our own successes and failures through its lens?

Such a paradox is seen in powerful, successful women like Julie Bishop, who refuse to identify with feminism, for fear it can take away from what they have achieved. Julie Bishop chooses not to call herself a feminist as a way of refusing to see her success based on her gender, but in doing so she dismisses sexism as a factor still powerfully affecting women in Australia and the world.

It is difficult to reconcile our fiercely individual selves, with a broader social movement recognizing that, despite all our gains, women are still facing gender-based adversity today.

 

Recent news has brought to light some of the hidden realities of gender inequality still present in medicine. I’m sure you haven’t missed it. And, although we are talking about an unfortunate minority of the medical profession, it is a good time to reflect on our role in society and our image as a profession.

As a student and a future junior doctor, the story of a surgical trainee who’s career has been all but destroyed by sexual harassment, and the response of prominent women in the field, really shook me. This was a concrete example of something I could directly confront in my career. It has forced me to consider how I would deal with it.

Although amongst friends I have joked about anti-sexual harassment strategies, including self-spread rumours of hideous venereal disease, this is an issue that is impossible to brush off.

On one hand there is the option to speak up and call out sexism or sexual harassment. But then I must consider that even after winning her sexual harassment suit, that brave surgical trainee has since failed to get work in a public hospital in Australia. On the other hand there is the option of just “complying with the request” as, with courage and alarming honesty, Dr McMullin revealed is still the “safest thing to do in terms of your career”, leaving me with an extremely confronting scenario.

Essentially, to accept the reality of unwanted sexual advances, or to throw away a career I had dreamt of and worked towards for years. This choice seems absurd as I write it.

What I see as one of the reasons that sexism, or sexual harassment is still silently swept under the carpet in medicine has a lot to do with the people we are and the profession we have chosen. This sentiment was reflected in McMullin’s comments.

 

Doctors face adversity everyday. It is a competitive industry, where we are constantly driven to be better. We work harder, study more, stay later in order to better our peers and eventually be the best doctors that we can be.

So when a particular adversity, such as sexism or sexual harassment faces us- would we put our heads down and deal with it how we always have? Work harder, be the best, until no one can ignore you.

And yes, this may work. Women in medicine find incredible success, and so they should. But this strategy allows archaic behavior to persist, and will prevent the medical profession making the changes it needs to ensure that none of the women in this years cohort of medical students are ever confronted with this hideous scenario.

For males and females of our generation of medical students, the discussion needs to be had and had openly. It is about accepting that feminism still plays a role in our greater society, and that confronting sexual harassment and sexism is something we must all be a part of. It’s standing up and demanding that our professional, hospital and social cultures match our expectations for justice and equality.

For women, it is reconciling two perspectives – to take on our own adversities and challenges and overcome them as the capable, intelligent women we are- whilst allowing ourselves to see the part we play in the bigger picture of promoting gender equality in our profession and our society.

Feminism must be seen as relevant to medicine, so it can be seen as relevant to everyone. We can act as change makers, championing equality in our profession and our non-professional lives. Because if we don’t, how can we expect it of others?

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Doctus Project.