Updated: Jan 5
Let's talk about #WhatADoctorLooksLike. Gender bias exist and is way too prevalent in our society. Dr. Sonali Mantoo shares her experiences as a female physician and the gender biases she experienced.
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As a 37-year-old woman in medicine, my experiences might seem familiar to many of you. These stories, previously disconcerting, carry immense power and potential. They are part of the collective narrative of women in medicine. By sharing them, I realize, we can raise awareness in order to make gender parity a reality.
Born and raised in Delhi, I went to Medical School in Chennai, India. After the tedious process of going through exams, interviews and immigration, I started residency in the United States. Often I was asked if I was old enough to be a doctor and more interestingly, when it was that I learned English. At 31, I started my first “real job” as a Critical Care Medicine Consultant. It was best not to bring up my age, since many of my trainees were older than me. I was often mistaken for a nurse. But there is another bias I was still waking up to: gender disparity.
A few months into my first job, a senior male physician handed me his patient list, saying he was going home early for a festival and walked away in haste. He had just asked me to do his work, without the courtesy of a request. I clutched the list in disbelief, my feet glued to the spot. “You are not a resident anymore!” barked my 36-year-old, female colleague, walking up to me. “Please read the book Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. There is so much we need to navigate as women physicians."
Stunned, I realized she was telling me that gender disparity is a legitimate concern! I was living in a bubble, assuming gender bias was restricted to only certain sections of society and was sorely mistaken. Several of my maternal aunts are doctors and my great grandaunt, Muthulakshmi Reddy, was among India’s first female physicians. An inspiration for both genders, she worked tirelessly for women’s rights in India. Historically, it has not even been 200 years since women entered the field of Medicine. But how long are we to play “catch up?" I love this quote by Mindy Kaling, actor and producer:
"I am so confident because my parents raised me as an entitled white male".
Ditto. I feel the same way, given my privilege, although I wouldn’t have known what an “entitled white male” meant back in India. Working in the United States has of course, made me fully aware of this uncomfortable truth.
In my class at medical school, we had an equal number of boys and girls. I started medical school when I was 17 years old, graduated at 23 and started residency at 25. I was incredibly grateful to be a proud PGY -1 Internal Medicine Resident, more commonly known as an “Intern”. And I wore it as a badge of honor!
As an Intern doing rounds, I looked up the patient information on my next case, a 94-year-old Caucasian Male with pneumonia. Identifying patients by race was a novelty for me. I walked in through the door, nervous with my list and clipboard, greeting the elderly gentleman cheerfully. A war veteran, he scowled and said “Whatever happened to all the good ‘old White American Boy Doctors”? Dumbstruck, I started to giggle. To my relief, in walked a black African American nurse and we both had a good laugh. He muttered under his breath and begrudgingly accepted his medication from the nurse, as I waited patiently to examine him.
Laughter is my first response to bias, probably as a helpless coping mechanism! It puzzles me that educated people can be so ignorant. Didn’t we learn that Homo Sapiens originated from Africa. That our internal organs, thoughts and feelings are similar, simply by virtue of being human? Yet bias is painfully present, leading to stereotypes and assumptions.
I did my Critical Care fellowship at a University hospital in New York City, known to admit the elite. One day, during sign-out in the Neuro-Critical Care Unit, I noticed the name of a certain patient was the same as the fashion designer? Apparently, he was one of our “stable ICU patients”. As I knocked on his door getting ready to introduce myself, our famous patient said to me “Get me a bedpan”. He was on a phone call, brushing me away.
Startled, I said “Yes, of course” and asked the nurse where to find the bedpan. I gave him the bedpan and mentioned that after he was done, I would come back in to examine him. He looked surprised. Initially irate, I went about my business. I was reminded once again, bias was real. Whether it was my race or gender or age, or maybe all, I will never know. It was his tone and assumption, not his request that irked me.
On an Emirates flight, I responded to the dreaded call for “Is there a doctor on board?” I walked towards the lady in distress and felt relieved that she was awake and communicative. An older man introduced himself as an ENT surgeon. Before I could introduce myself, he asked me if I was a nurse. The “patient” was nauseous, needing an injection that she carried with her. I told the doctor that I was a Critical Care physician. While he continued gaping at me (and my outfit - yoga pants and a neon headband), I handed him the syringe saying “I am sure you are more experienced with procedures” and left. Satisfied with my response, I smiled to myself, resuming the movie I had abruptly left.
These stories are why I am always eager to be part of any collective working towards gender parity. I intend to leave the world a better place than I found it. If I woke up to the reality of gender bias only in my thirties, I better get to work in order to create a more equitable workplace. After all, isn’t Medicine about helping people? While we help others, let us work on helping ourselves as well.