Issue 42 / 31 October 2016

A RECENTLY published article recounted the stories of several female doctors who had offered in-flight assistance to distressed passengers in response to the call for help, and who were turned away by flight attendants because they did not “look like a doctor”.

While some of the flight attendants were men, most were women, so this is not just a case of discrimination by men, but discrimination by women against other women, particularly women “of colour”.

As a “coloured” woman myself, who also works as a doctor, I was intrigued by the story, and it made me think … what is going on here?

In Australia at least, the majority of medical students are now female, yet discrimination still abounds, and ironically, women are a big part of this.

We say that we would prefer to have a female doctor for ourselves, yet when it comes to power and authority, some women are happy to hand the power over to men.

Most powerful positions – heads of department, board members and official positions in our colleges – are held by men. Medicine is still a men’s club, and women are allowing this.

We are still allowing the pictures of what a doctor “should” look like – white, male, upper-middle class, conservatively dressed – to dominate our profession.

Why is that? Are we still subscribing to these images as a hangover of our childhood? Or are we still buying into a collective picture of what a powerful doctor should look like, much as we subscribed to the collective myth of what God should look like? In fact, the two pictures are remarkably similar. Most of us don’t still believe in a God who has a white beard and a kind twinkle in his eye (or was that Santa Claus?), but we still unconsciously hold on to ideals of what a doctor should look and behave like, much more than we think.

Where do these images come from?

Most people were cared for by male practitioners when they were young, as they were more common than female doctors. Even as doctors, most of us were trained by men, as they held the majority of jobs in the universities and hospitals. We are used to seeing them as the powerful knowledgeable doctors in charge.

This is not just about men imposing their power and authority on women. Women have a responsibility too. We can be our own worst enemies, in terms of not valuing ourselves and what we bring, not feeling good about ourselves or confident in our abilities. We underestimate our competence and our worth as people. We can also be each other’s worst enemies. The jealousy and competition sometimes present between us holds us back.

We have slotted into “female” roles – bearing and raising the children, working part-time, choosing careers with a “better lifestyle” and supporting and deferring to men – and, as a result, we are not taken seriously by our colleagues or by people in general, including flight attendants.

Sometimes we have done this in reaction to what we see as the culture of medicine – harsh, cruel, competitive and relentless in its demands on our time and our bodies and on our mental and emotional health and wellbeing.

We have watched the men in power and said that we don’t want that kind of life for ourselves. Or we have decided that we do want the job, but have hardened ourselves to make it in a man’s world. Have we stopped to consider that if we brought the tender care of women to power, we may actually be able to change this culture, to one that is more caring for everyone in it – doctors and patients alike?

It is time for women to step out of the shadows cast by the men we see as “greater” and out of the roles we have become comfortable in, and to take our place in the public eye, in visible positions of power and authority, to offer a true reflection of the fact that a doctor looks like a person, for doctors are people too and come in all sizes, shapes and colours.

Dr Anne Malatt is an ophthalmologist who works in Bangalow, northern NSW. 


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One thought on “What does a doctor look like?

  1. Dr Linda Appiah-Kubi says:

    This is a disappointing article. I thought I was going to read an exploration of the nuances of bias or the intersectionality of racism and sexism, instead the author claims the reason the doctors were rejected by flight attendants was because they were ‘their own worst enemies’ and didn’t push themselves forward enough in their careers. I am a black woman and a doctor, who has received outstanding support from colleagues, both men and women. In my career I have also experienced plenty of racism and sexism. Both experiences speak more to the mindsets of those that I have worked with than my ability to push myself forward.

    I am not surprised at women rejecting another woman of colour as a doctor – being a member of a group that may experience discrimination does not make you exempt from carrying out discrimination at all.

    Interestingly, I have offered assistance in several situations like this, never been turned down, but I suspect that’s because those on the receiving end were more open-minded.

    Rather than relying on tired tropes of women being their own worst enemies, we should instead all be questioning our own assumptions and prejudices about those we meet. Next time someone tells you what they do, who they are or what they think, and you are surprised, ask yourself ‘why?’

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