How do we end gender discrimination and abuse in healthcare?

By Diana Duong

A physician is introduced as “Miss” instead of “Dr.” When she walks into a hospital room, the patient assumes she’s the nurse and asks her to adjust his tray or fetch him a warm blanket. Meanwhile, nurses soldier through another day of condescending comments from physicians and patients’ families. These are just some of the everyday indignities faced by female healthcare professionals.

Individually these actions may seem insignificant, but when they regularly occur and are compounded with other inequalities, being a woman in healthcare becomes exhausting. The medical landscape is becoming more female—women now make up 51.6% of U.S. medical school students—but it’s still often treated as an old boys’ club.

Even female-dominated occupations like physician assistants (PAs) see inequity. On average, female PAs earn 86 cents to every male PA’s dollar. And male nurses outearn female nurses by thousands of dollars every year.

The majority of women in healthcare have experienced sexism

Figure 1 polled female healthcare professionals from all over the world in our own community. We asked if they’ve ever been treated differently than their male counterparts by either their patients (yes), colleagues (yes), or both (yes). They’ve been paid less, asked about pregnancy plans, and—no surprise—many physicians have been assumed to be nurses.

The overwhelming majority of women surveyed (80%) have experience some form of discrimination. Most said they had experienced sexism at the hands of both patients and colleagues (43%). More than a quarter (28%) said they have only been treated differently by their patients or the public and 9% said they had been discriminated by colleagues. One-fifth of respondents (20%) said they had never been treated differently because of their gender.

One cardiologist said, “I walked into the hospital room of an eight-year-old girl who had just had heart surgery and introduced myself. The mother (of three little girls, including the patient) says, ‘I didn’t know ladies could be doctors, I thought they were nurses’.”

Another internist said she was told “female physicians are not compatible with challenging specialities.” Others commented saying, “How many times [have I] heard ‘how are you going to be able to be a good mother if you are a doctor?’” A urology resident said only on rare occasions is she called ‘doctor.’ Her colleagues also “think that it’s fine to comment when I am going to get pregnant, or to think that I am weaker so I can’t be in the OR all day.”

The darker side of discrimination

Sexism in medicine doesn’t end with insults and slights, however. Unwanted sexual attention, harassment, and even violence is a unique threat female healthcare professionals face, from both patients and colleagues.

To make matters worse, some men in positions of power in medicine are now afraid to mentor women, for fear of false allegations of sexual misconduct, according to the New England Journal of Medicine.

The founding of Time’s Up Healthcare, a new movement fighting for safe workplaces, is bringing these stories out into the open. This movement is especially vital for women of color, who face an additional layer of racial harassment. A paper published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine last year found that women of color report significantly higher numbers of feeling unsafe and hearing more sexist remarks from their peers and supervisors than any other demographic.

Figure 1 recently hosted a forum about violence against healthcare professionals. There, we heard stories about healthcare professionals who have been hit, kicked, bitten, spat on, and worse.

One licensed practical nurse said, “I have seen parents slap nurses in the face. I have seen a nurse physically attacked in an empty room. I have heard a parent threaten to come in and shoot staff. I have seen parents bring weapons into the facility while visiting their children. The facility did nothing to protect their staff. They won’t call police because then it would show in public records that it is in an unsafe place.”

This is just the beginning. The fact that #MeToo and #TimesUp has sparked such a wide range of reactions from both men and women proves that these conversations are far from over. This International Women’s Day, and every day, Figure 1 is committed to making sure they continue, both on and off our platform.