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What’s It Like Being a Black Woman in Medicine?

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My experiences as a Black Woman in Medicine have a pre and post- North American perspective, that I believe helps me with some of the challenges I’ve faced.  Growing up in the Caribbean, it never occurred to me that I could not accomplish this big dream because I was a little black girl, because there were women in positions of leadership, women in medicine who looked like me. Dr. Carissa Etienne, the physician who encouraged me to go into medicine was a woman, a leader in our community who would go on to become the Director of the Pan American Health Organization. I never stopped to consider that I was “not good enough” or “would never get in”.  I knew what I wanted, and I went for it.

I approached things the same way when I moved to Canada, and my confident, assertive attitude was quickly met with resistance. I was one of about 6 black students in my classes. Suddenly, I was described as “bossy” and “arrogant”. I was still a top student, but became more apologetic for my successes and avoided raising my hand in class. I regressed in group assignments, as I struggled to find a balance between being a leader and being labeled as another “B-word”.  My friends and I were constantly met with passive-aggressive tones from our professors and classmates alike.

I didn’t realize all of these things were happening at the time. I didn’t know the word “microaggression”. I just thought University was hard, and it was like that for everyone. Later on, in residency, I was one of 6 black residents, and during fellowship training, I was the only black ID fellow. I became used to being “the only.” But one day, when a colleague commented that I would “probably get a job over him (a white male)” because I was black, I realized that I had become too comfortable being “the only." I learned that while women make up anywhere between 36-52% of Infectious Disease Physicians, only 3% of Infectious Diseases physicians are African American.

From that day onwards, I found my voice again and actively sought opportunities to find, mentor and collaborate with young women and especially young black women.   One of my friends and I co-founded the Trainee Diversity and Inclusion Committee. Now, as one of the few people of color on faculty in my division, I’ve made it my mission to use my influence as an attending and leader who happens to be a woman of color, to advocate for diversity, inclusion and equity in my specialty. And fortunately, my division leadership is supportive of this mission, as well.

What three lessons would you impart to the up and coming young black female physician that you wish you had known in your training or first few years as an attending?

  1. Know your worth. You are smart, you are kind, and you are good at your craft.  Period. Do not let anyone diminish your worth.

  2. People need to hear your voice. Speak up! You may not be able to fix the problem of being “the only” right away, but the only way they will be able to hear YOU is if you speak up.

  3. Be inspired. Set goals. Achieve goals. Inspire others. Find women like yourself (can also be outside of your specialty), and reach out to them. Form a sisterhood. Learn from women who have achieved those goals. Mentor and Sponsor other young women to help them achieve those goals.

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