By Tia Will
In the comments section on an article posted Wednesday 8/16, a commenter made the observation that sexism is a two-edged sword and both men and women can engage in sexism with adverse consequences. While I agree with this statement, I would like to make the following modification. While sexism is indeed a two-edged sword, one side is blunt, while the other has been honed to scalpel-like sharpness through generations of discrimination. I’ll explain using my own experiences.
When in grade school in the late 50’s/early 60’s, a common question was, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” There were answers that were expected from boys: doctor, policeman, fireman, astronaut, president. There were answers that were expected from girls: nurse, teacher, librarian, housewife. There could be some minor overlaps, especially in the category of teacher. But what I never heard was a girl say that she wanted to be a doctor, astronaut or president. Perhaps even more telling and restrictive was that I never heard a boy say he wanted to be a homemaker.
It was not until my first serious relationship in the 70’s when my boyfriend stated that he wanted to be a homemaker. The relationship was doomed for a number of reasons. The one of which I am least proud is that I could not, at that point in time, accept that my potential lifetime partner’s ambition was to be a homemaker. I was wrong. He would have taken excellent care of a working wife, children and home. But, at the time, I was still too blinded by gender role constraints to see that.
Years passed and, by the 80’s, I was confronted by true academic and workplace sexism. I was told repeatedly that, as a woman, I would not get into medical school. Once accepted, I was told that I could not get a surgical residency in California due to its competitive nature. All of that was common and to be expected for a woman of my generation. Once that position had been secured, I encountered what I had never anticipated.
Even within my residency program, there were senior doctors who did not believe that women should ever have been accepted into the program. One in particular had been sanctioned for not letting the women residents scrub on his cases. He circumvented this by letting us scrub, but not do anything but suction and close skin while the male residents were given increasingly more challenging duties until they were scrubbing as equals on his cases. This has the ability to destroy the career of a young surgeon since you must operate to improve. Luckily, by the time I arrived, there were a few women ahead of me, who, knowing the situation, invited me to scrub with them. So that is the side of the sword that has prevailed for decades, the one that we know which limits the careers of women.
But what about that blunt, but also dangerous, side of the sword – discrimination against men. I have seen this not only with regard to the ambition to make a home and raise children, but also more recently in the workplace. In the field of gynecology it comes cleverly disguised as “patient preference.” While it is true that many women do state a preference for a female gynecologist, there are also many who recognize that a doctor’s worth is based on their skills, knowledge, and compassion, not on their gender. I encountered this side of the sword when, after a challenging hiring period, we had several acceptable candidates. The strongest by far was a man. Some of the members of our hiring team, while acknowledging his superior credentials, wanted to hire the top woman, ostensibly because of “patient preference.” This was a major battle for me because these were my friends that I was challenging. In the end, we hired the best candidate and he has proven an asset to the department, as anticipated.
I long for the day when our society as a whole chooses to judge individuals not on their biologic groups, their religion, or their gender preference or identity, but on their individual interests and capabilities. There is a model that exists for this in our society. Orchestras largely resolved the issue of gender disparity when they began doing auditions without providing names, and having the candidates play behind a screen so their race, age, gender could not be considered. In other words, I would like to do away with the “two-edged sword” entirely.