An article published in 2016 recounted the stories of several female doctors who had offered in-flight assistance to distressed passengers in response to the call for help, and who were turned away by flight attendants because they did not ‘look like a doctor’.
Whilst some of the flight attendants were men, most were women, so this is not just a case of discrimination by men, but discrimination by women against other women, particularly women “of colour”.
As a “coloured” woman myself, who also works as a doctor, I was intrigued by the story, and it got me to thinking…what is going on here?
In Australia at least, the majority of medical students are now female, yet discrimination still abounds, and ironically, women are a big part of this.
We say that we would prefer to have a female doctor for ourselves, yet when it comes to power and authority, women remain happy, in the main, to hand it over to our men.
The vast majority of powerful positions – heads of department, board members, official positions in our colleges – are still held by men. Medicine is still a men’s club, and women are still allowing this.
We are still allowing the pictures of what a doctor ‘should’ look like – white, male, upper/middle class, conservatively dressed – to dominate our profession, and ourselves.
Why is that? Are we still subscribing to these images as a hangover of our childhood? Or are we still buying into a collective picture of what a powerful doctor should look like, much as we subscribed to the collective myth of what God should look like? In fact, come to think of it, the two pictures are remarkably similar! Most of us don’t still believe in the God who has a white beard and a kindly twinkle in his eye (or was that Santa Claus?!) but we do still unconsciously hold onto ideals of what a doctor should look and behave like, much more than we like to think.
Where do these images come from? Most people were cared for by male doctors when they were young, as they were far more common than female doctors. Even as doctors, most of us were trained by men, as men held the majority of jobs in the universities and hospitals we trained in, and we are used to seeing them as the powerful knowledgeable doctors in charge.
This is not just about men imposing their power and authority on women. Women have a responsibility here too. We can be our own worst enemies, in terms of not valuing ourselves and what we bring, not feeling good about ourselves or confident in our abilities. We nearly always underestimate our competence and our worth as people. We can also be each other’s worst enemies, and the jealousy and competition between us holds us back just as much as, if not more so than, any man ever has.
We have collectively slotted into ‘female’ roles – bearing and raising the children, working part time, choosing careers with a ‘better lifestyle’ and supporting and deferring to our men – and as a result, we are not taken seriously, by our colleagues or by people in general, including flight attendants.
Sometimes we have done this in reaction to what we see as the culture of medicine – harsh, cruel, competitive, and relentless in its demands on our time and our physical bodies and our mental and emotional health and wellbeing. We have watched the men in power and said that we don’t want that kind of life for ourselves. Or we have decided that we do want the job, but have hardened ourselves to make it in a man’s world. But have we stopped to consider that if we brought the tender loving care of women in their true power, we may actually be able to change this culture, to one that is more caring for everyone in it – doctors and patients alike?
Perhaps it is time for women to step out of the shadows cast by the men we see as ‘greater’ and the roles we have become comfortable in, and to take our place in the public eye, in visible positions of power and authority, to offer a true reflection of the fact that a doctor looks like a person, for doctors are people too and come in all sizes, shapes, and colours!
This article was first published in MJA Insight 42, 31 October 2016, as “What does a doctor look like?”