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Uncovering America’s Unconscious Gender Bias in the Medical Field
At a young age, some women feel inferior to men. In elementary school, a girl who talks too much in class is labeled a “know-it-all” while a boy who does the same thing is praised for paying attention. A girl who becomes interested in math and science in high school becomes the class geek, but a boy who expresses the same interest is reminded of his bright future. Veronica Rueckert, a public speaker and radio host, describes the problem of gender inequality in her novel Outspoken. “Men are the talkers, the planners, the actors in life, while women are there to be moved about like property; their greatest value is giving birth to babies.” (155) With the prevalence of gender roles like these ingrained in our society, it is no wonder that there is a steady absence of women in the medical field. Often, a woman’s choice to avoid a science-based career begins in elementary school. This developed disinterest is not fully attributed to a girl’s own skills or innate preferences. Rather, the unconscious gender bias that women face in K-12 and collegial educational institutions can result in a lack of women in the medical field.
Because primary schools house children younger than ten years old, it is hard to believe that girls experience unjust treatment as early as first grade. An interim report from the Global Campaign for Education found that one in ten primary schoolgirls regret their gender. This results from a lack of equality in school, the report later states. “Reasons cited by the girls include restrictions on freedom, a lack of opportunities compared to boys, and a feeling that (the girls) were less safe or faced more harassment.” (Croso) When girls experience discrimination at a young age from teachers and professionals, they become discouraged, which only sets the stage for more frustration and defeat later on. In fact, as female students progress through middle and high-school, the problem only deepens. Eileen Pollack, a Yale physics graduate, describes her struggles with discrimination from educators throughout her early years in her research novel The Only Woman in the Room.
"The first week of term, I filed into the auditorium with ninety other seventh graders to take an exam whose purpose remained unclear until my friends Eric and Jeff vanished from my science and math classes…I was even more upset when Eric revealed he had overheard our principal, Mr Van Slyke, say I hadn’t been skipped ahead because girls never completed programs in science or math…I sent my mother to Parents’ Night to complain. As I recall, she confronted Mr. Van, the principal, and Ed Wolff, the chair of the Math Department, both of whom seemed surprised I would care. One or both of the men assured her it wasn’t a good idea to narrow a child’s horizons too early. Besides, a girl who got skipped ahead in math might find her social life had been destroyed." (Pollack 19, 21)
This is just one case in which a girl experiences needless discrimination because of her gender. When able girls are restrained unnecessarily, they do not receive the proper academic challenge they desire. For them, this causes boredom that results in lost interest. Furthermore, when teachers display partiality, girls encounter disappointment and confusion as to why their progress did not measure up. Unfortunately, the teachers that exhibit gender bias are just one problem girls face in their early educational years. Not only teachers, but also students and the textbooks they read, are guilty of influencing the gender divide. “Girls are raised to be modest, while boys learn to exaggerate their intelligence,” Pollack writes. “Girls who have been trained to underestimate their talents encounter boys who overestimate their talents; the girls take the boys’ estimations of their skills at face value and think even worse of themselves.” (192) It isn’t long before girls begin to regret their intelligence. In junior high, children experience the “popularity problem.” To seventh and eighth graders, being smart becomes nerdy and some girls turn away from their education in an effort to remain cool and dateable, a life decision that can affect them for years to come. (Pollack 193) This divisive gender problem is even built into textbooks. As Pollack describes, all generic math books involve problems with quarterbacks, pirates, superheroes, baseball coaches, golfers, monsters, and a salesman named Bill. The only appearance of a female character is in the kitchen, making a pie with pi iced on the top. (181-82) When girls no longer can relate to the textbooks they read, their interest is lost. Unfortunately, the unhealthy amount of gender discrimination that girls experience in some of the most crucial years of their educational lives can be detrimental long-term, turning promising women away from a challenging career. This is especially true when girls express interest in math or science. Asking an intelligent girl to conform to the societal norms excluding her from the medicinal world can be quite damaging, especially at such a young age.
After graduating from high school, girls enter college, some looking forward to their pursuit of a medical career. However, the reality of a fair education at a university is inaccurate. Although young women may leave behind some of the unconscious bias displayed by teachers and classmates in K-12 education, colleges are still responsible for influencing the gender divide and unintentionally stimulating discrimination against female students. In fact, once female scientists graduate into a university, the inequity they experienced in high-school turns into harassment in college. “20%-50% of women students report having encountered or experienced sexual harassing behavior,” says Gabrielle Redford, managing editor of the American Assocation of Medical Colleges. Even worse, women medical students are 220% more likely to experience harassment compared to women in fields unrelated to science, engineering, and math. The results of such harassment can be devastating:
"Crude comments, sexist insults, obscene gestures, put-downs, and implications that women don’t belong in a certain specialty or institution can lead to lost productivity, physical and emotional distress, depression, and even women deciding to leave an institution." (Redford, Weiner)
Although indecent behavior is considered unacceptable by most teachers and students, both still display obscene language towards women. Unfortunately, when female undergraduates experience such behavior, their uncomfortability often causes them to leave science in an effort to regain their sense of safety. The harassment and bias against female medical students is quite damaging long-term. The problem is, gender discrimination in unverisities has been a recurring issue from the beginning. Elizabeth Blackwell, one of the first successful female doctors, experienced harsh prejudice in her attempt to enter a university. Each time she applied at a new institution, she was abruptly turned down with a crude rejection letter. “Medical men were scared of the competition female practitioners might present,” Olivia Campbell, author of Women in White Coats, explains. “In a surprisingly frank response to (Elizabeth’s) admission application, the dean of one smaller college wrote back, ‘You cannot expect us to furnish you with a stick to break our heads with.’” (32) In an effort to save his male students from possible humiliation, this college dean refused to allow a woman into his university. Even to the general public, being a doctor was considered unfeminine and unladylike, despite the fact that femininity and doctoring are two very different ideas.
"The general consensus was that by departing from women’s socially acceptable sphere, Elizabeth was seeking laurels in forbidden paths, dishonoring her sex, and perverting God’s laws. It was inconceivable that a woman could “go through all that (men) have to encounter in the study of medicine without tarnishing that delicate surface of the female mind…The office of the physician and surgeon calls for those qualities which are characteristic of men.”" (Campbell 107-08)
Eileen Pollack describes a similar kind of discrimination in her novel The Only Woman in the Room. When she explained her academic struggles to one of her fellow Physics students, all he could do was shake his head. “‘Don’t worry, Eileen,’ he said. ‘When I am big professor, you can be my assistant and run my lab.’” (54) Decades later, when conducting research for her book, Pollack talked to some current female Yale physics students. Unsurprisingly, she found that the discrimination she herself faced in college was quite common.
"(One) student says she was the only girl in her AP Physics class from the start. Her classmates teased her mercilessly. “You’re a girl, we don’t need to listen to you. Girls can’t do physics.” In one physics class, the teacher announced the boys would be graded on the “boy curve” while the one girl would be graded on the “girl curve”; asked why, the teacher explained he couldn't reasonably expect a girl to compete in physics on equal terms with boys." (166)
When female students display an interest in a medical occupation, some teachers, professionals, and fellow students consider the career unsuitable for a woman. As a result, they discriminate against women in school. In fact, some collegial members even believe that women are just too weak to work as a doctor. “It’s always had that belief that females are unable to withstand the pressures that one experiences in the operating room,” says Dr. Yvette Canaba, a podiatric surgeon at St. John’s Hospital in New York. “There’s the belief that women are the weaker sex and are unable to withstand the emotional and physical stressors that accompany that kind of a setting.” (Haskins) With such a widely accepted, negative perspective of women, it is no surprise that a recent report found women in medical school struggling to keep up. In a study conducted by the Journal of the American College of Surgeons, of 3,373 medical school graduates, all women initially failed the Medical Licensing Exam Step 1 and failed or received low passing scores on the Medical Licensing Exam Step 2. After graduation, these women were more likely to be non-board certified surgeons. A similar 2012 report conducted by the Medical School Council notes that men are more likely to achieve positions of seniority at a younger age compared to women. Continual gender bias in the system causes a lack of female productivity in the long run. According to popular public opinion, women are not smart or gifted enough to work in the medical field. However, this belief is illegitimate. Truthfully, women are disheartened by the harassment and blunt prejudice they face in college, which impacts their educational ability. If there was more inclusivity for women, we would not have this issue.
Women experience harassment throughout their life when they display an interest in a scientific field. Teachers, classmates, and even textbooks group men and women studying the same thing into two different categories simply because of their gender. As a result, women become discouraged and their grades drop. But the real question is, why does this keep happening, especially in 21st century America? “This conscious or unconscious bias could be the result of a dominant group restricting access to prestigious specialities, research areas and the highest levels of influence,” a report published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Women says. With a group of high powered, male-dominant leaders in our universities, there is more chance for gender discrimination. In fact, three recent studies conducted by the National Library of Medicine all say the same thing: there is an unhealthy lack of women in positions of high power in U.S. Medical Schools (Schor, Bunton, Larson). Furthermore, without female role models to look up to, female students are likely to feel a lack of self-confidence. “Women are victims of misperception,” Roger Howe, a past professor at Yale University, explains. (Pollack 159) It’s quite common for people to interpret women as incompetent. However, gender doesn’t play a role in educational capability. Women are forced out of medicine by educational inequity, not lack of ability.
Despite efforts by many to understand why women continue to face this harmful discrimination, there has not been an overwhelming assertion that schools are the embodiment of equality for all. Nevertheless, there is clear room for improvement, and this starts with a conscious effort by all to incorporate change. “The challenge is to work on reforming the system,” says the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. “It is crucial that real cultural change occurs within medical schools and that the award does not become a ‘tick box’ type exercise in its own right.” (Maryse) For real societal change to occur, colleges must genuinely embody gender inclusivity without the task becoming an obligation. But what can we do to begin reforming the system? John Cullen, director of diversity and inclusion at the University of Rochester Medical Center, seems to have an answer.
"Those who want to promote equity and stem harassment must adopt a stance of humility…“Remind yourself that this is not about you and that your discomfort in speaking up is not greater than the experience of being harassed or discriminated against,” he said. Cullen also advised acknowledging one’s own implicit biases, recognizing the role of intersectionality, and studying the deep history of the struggle for equity. “It’s important to remember to be humble, listen, and learn,” he said." (Redford, Weiner)
Students, teachers, and leaders alike must work together to encourage neutrality, both internally and externally. However, it will take more than just human efforts to resolve the issue. In reality, the whole of the institution itself can sometimes be the biggest problem. “It ultimately comes down to institutional integrity versus institutional reputation,” says Karen Antman, an MD from the Boston University of Medicine. “If we confuse the two, we are lost.” (Redford, Weiner) Our universities must understand the importance of respect towards students instead of focusing on their prestige. To minimize the gender divide in primary school and beyond, it is essential that high-powered individuals fight to end gender discrimination and harrassment. (Smith) Not only must they train professors and students alike to promote equity, they must also face their own internal gender bias to set a proper example. Lastly, women themselves must be trained to understand discrimination. As of now, only 20% of women recognize examples of gender harassment. Universities cannot address such aggravation if it is not acknowledged. If women learn to recognize discrimination and report it, the bias they face will be restrained, allowing them to achieve their full potential without teasing. As universities progress towards equality, women will be able to easily progress in the medical field.
Medicine is one of the most sought-after fields of work. At a young age, some boys and girls recognize their curiosity in science and math. As these students age, their curiosity flowers into a passion. They enter college, push through the tough classes, and graduate. Then it’s on to medical school, with days of grueling work. Finally, after years of perseverance and determination, they become a doctor. However, the path into the medical field is not as easy as it should be for the female race. Instead, what is already a difficult road for men becomes more tedious for many women. From almost the beginning of grade school to the end of medical school, women often face significant discrimination and harassment from their teachers and peers. Taunting, name-calling, and exclusion occurs frequently. Women most likely experience this because of the lack of female leaders in educational institutions, which allows for greater gender bias to occur in the highest positions of authority. In K-12 facilities, universities, and medical schools nationwide, women suffer against an inherent bias ingrained in the system. They are perceived to be “less than” by teachers and students alike, a false belief that can cause harassment and discrimination. If we want inclusivity in American medical facilities, our educational institutions must face the harsh reality of gender bias and handle it appropriately. Only then can we progress towards equality in the future.
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Haskins, Julia. Sexism is Alive, Well in the Healthcare Industry. Healthline, 1 Apr. 2016, healthline.com/health-news/sexism-is-alive-in-healthcare#Unequal-representation-. Accessed 6 Dec. 2021.
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Rueckert, Veronica. Outspoken: Why Women’s Voices Get Silenced and How to Set Them Free. HarperCollins, 2019.
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