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Nurse, Nurse! Gender Roles in Medicine

I have never felt that my gender put me at a disadvantage at the hospital until this past week.

One morning, as I finished speaking and examining my patient, his roomate from across the curtain exclaimed “Nurse! Can you please close the door when you leave?” I tried to pretend he didn’t hear a female voice and assume it was a nurse. I really hoped he was speaking to someone else, but there was no one there.

When rounding with the team, I met the voice behind the curtain. I was helping wrap his foot ulcer, when he said, “you’re too gentle, let the doctor do it.” I have shadowed vascular surgeons since college. I know how to wrap ulcers. He gave instructions to the doctor. Why hadn’t he just let me do it, if he was going to direct the process anyway? He talked to the males in the room about his medical problems and referred to the female residents and interns only when he wanted to make “jokes.” He turned to my intern and said, “She’s cute, doc. Can we keep her?” The male intern said, “She’s already a part of our team taking care of you.”

I wondered if we (female doctors) will always require this validation from our male colleagues.

Is our academic trajectory not enough to show that we can provide the same or better care to our patients? I was taught to show rather than say all the things I can do, but at the moment, I was not even given a chance to show it.

How many more times will biases deem my work invisible?

Gender roles are engraved in our society and even more so in the older generation of patients who have mainly been exposed to male doctors. I have been fortunate enough to have amazing female role models in my life and throughout my career. The patient’s comments made me angry not just for my future, and myself, but for the excellent female doctors I know. I tried to understand that he did not mean to make us feel bad. I really did try to be in his shoes, but it still bothered me. I guess this was “the real world,” I have been warned about at every graduation ceremony. The “real world” I had felt ready to confront, but now seemed so challenging. 

Have you or your colleagues ever been put in a similar situation? How did you deal with it? 

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Paula Morales, MD
Paula Morales, MD
Oct 06, 2018

Thanks so much for sharing your story with me, Dr. Gregory. You are right, unfortunately, we will always have to resort to various measures to establish who we are.



This phenomenon is unfortunately a reality and will be present for many more years until society catches up with the gender equity movement. I have been in practice for 13 years now and the other night I was mistaken for the nurse (despite wearing my long white coat and badge with the large lettered "PHYSICIAN" on my lapel). The irony of the situation is that the patient who thought I was the nurse was female. She had pressed the nurse assist button, unbeknownst to me, just prior to my entry. After I finished examining her, she asked for a warm blanket. She apologized and said that she assumed I was the nurse because I came in after she pressed…

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