I’m an eighties baby and a proud member of Generation Y. A child of two working professionals who came of age in China’s Cultural Revolution, I grew up with a strong belief in gender equality. Feminism and women’s rights were concepts that I took for granted. Nobody ever told me that there were things I couldn’t do because I was a girl. Because of the battles fought by the generations ahead of me, I grew up sheltered, believing that gender differences and the professional challenges associated with them were relics of the past.
My early medical training helped to shield me from the realities of the world. I went to a very supportive medical school, where several of our Deans were women and had regular networking session for female medical students. These sessions were so popular that some men in my class tried to form a “male-only networking group”—an idea that somehow had a different connotation. I can’t recall a single incident of favoritism in my preclinical years. In my clinical years, the biggest challenge was getting visiting consultants and my patients to see me as the medical student—not the nursing student or candy striper. I learned to wear my white coat everywhere, and to laugh when someone would refer to me as “that nice nurse”, or, at one point, “that Oriental home health aide.”
It was in the U.K. that I had my first and most significant gender battle. After medical school, I won the Rhodes scholarship and studied at Oxford for two years. In my subject, economic history, we were required to take a beginning statistics class—something I wasn’t particularly thrilled to take, having taught stats on the graduate level before. Our class happened to have all men except for Jana, a Bulgarian girl who was a mathematician in her home country, and me.
After our first exam, the Professor stormed into the room. He gave us a lecture on academic honesty, and then pointed at Jana and me. “What can you say to explain yourself?” he yelled. “How dare you cheat on your exam?”
Apparently, the two of us had received high marks on the test. The 20-odd men, on the other hand, did not do particularly well. It was unacceptable to this Professor that the women—and two foreign women at that—had somehow outscored the men. The only explanation he could think of for this was that we had cheated.
The incident got resolved quickly through our department, though the Professor’s only slap on the hand was to mutter a begrudging “sorry” to the two of us. Though this experience was a very small part of my overall (very positive) educational experience, it gave me a great deal of respect for all the women who came before me, who had to face discrimination like this every time they went to class or work.
It also gave me additional perspective on other gendered experiences. In my residency, a group of female residents and young faculty attempted to form a women’s support network. Some of our colleagues, both male and female, questioned why it was really necessary to have a women’s group. In this day and age, aren’t issues that are relevant to women relevant to everyone else? Is there really anything to be gained from a network of high-achieving women?
I’m not sure that I would have known the answer to this before, but my answer now--as I am completing my medical training--is a resounding yes. Here are just a few of the reasons why:
1) Mentorship. Studies have consistently shown that drive, intelligence, and passion are necessary but not sufficient for success; behind every star performer is a star mentor. Women can and should have male mentors, but female mentorship adds an additional critical dimension and nuance. For those of us in academic medicine, I am a believer that we all need not just research and professional mentors, but personal mentors, too.
2) Practical aspects of work-life balance. It is almost a cliché to talk about work-life balance in a discussion of professional women’s issues. I’m embarrassed to admit that I used to roll my eyes every time we talked about it. Now that I’m married and thinking about starting a family, though, I seek out these discussions with women who have also “done it all”. I want to ask them how and what they did. How did they structure their initial career? What were challenges that they faced along the way, and what are the lessons they have to impart?
3) Unique demands of our work. One of my classmates got fed up with all the talks on work-life balance and famously said that she wants to cut out the life and just talk about work. After all, isn’t work what men talk about? She’s not wrong; there are unique demands of our work, particularly for high-achieving women who wish to be "do it all" for our families and fo rour careers. It’s important to have the space for such discussions.
4) Advocating for system-level change. Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote a provocative article in the Atlantic about how women can't have it all, and how it takes a village to really empower women. Gender equity is not an issue of the past; a recent Journal of the American Medical Association study showed that women physicians still consistently earn less than their male counterparts.
At this point, I have come full circle: from being a millennium child with little sense of gendered experiences, to a feminist with an understanding that being a professional woman continues to yield its separate challenges and requires active work. There are systems-level problems that require systems-level solutions, but it has to start with each one of us.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this and other matters. Portions of this article appeared in the Academy for Women in Academic Emergency Medicine awareness newsletter.