By Anna Gomez
I am going to be a physician. It is important for me to make this statement without any qualifiers or conditionals, because lately I have been adding both when explaining my career plans. I’ll say, “I’m thinking about going to medical school,” or “We’ll see, this is the plan right now.” This is not true. I am going to be a physician, and I’m tired of explaining this decision to those around me.
When I let people know that my plan is to become a doctor, the usual response is: “Wow, that’s really difficult! You are going to be in school for a long time. Have you thought about nursing school? Or going the Nurse Practitioner route? Or a physician’s assistant? These paths can be easier with kids.”
These comments are loaded with skepticism, assumptions, and even insults. By noting the difficulty of the medical discipline and suggesting other paths, these critics are implying doubt about my abilities to succeed. When the topic of children enters the conversation, the presumption is that I want to and will be a mother. I resent being told that medicine is a challenging field, or one that I may want to reconsider due to my non-existent children, because these comments assume that I have not already given years of thought to this career path.
I find it particularly insulting that I don’t hear these same sentiments directed at my male peers. Men who are considering my same professional goals do not receive the same response when they disclose their plans to others (at least not to my knowledge). On countless occasions, I have heard male colleagues who describe the desire to become a doctor receive comments like, “Good for you,” or “That’s a tough field, you must be smart.” While the difficulty of the profession is acknowledged, it is translated into prestige rather than a burden. The only presumption I detect is that the guy is intelligent, which, let me tell you, is not necessarily the case. While I am constantly reminded that medicine can be a tricky career with children, I have never heard the same caveat made to my male classmates.
I understand that health care has a gendered history that places women in the nursing, caregiving roles, and reserves the diagnostic, research and medical sciences for men. But it’s just that: history. Female physicians are not a new phenomenon, nor have they been shown to underperform their male counterparts. In fact, a new study suggests that female physicians are more effective than male physicians, with significantly lower mortality rates and hospital readmission rates.1 When my friends, family, or acquaintances express skepticism about my life plans, I don’t even think they realize what they are doing. The sexism of health care stereotypes is still so ingrained in our society that I often find myself listening to other women tell me how difficult this path will be. These are strong, accomplished women, some of whom are health care providers themselves, and yet their responses still harbor doubt.
The largest concern other women express when I talk about my dreams of becoming a physician is about having children. They are quick to note that being a doctor can mean long hours and unforgiving schedules. I admit, I have grappled with the idea of having children and pursuing a demanding career. Multiple times I have weighed my interest in the medical profession against the possible challenges it may pose to my plans to have a family. However, I slowly came to question why I was making decisions based on the chance that I may have children, rather than the fact that I have genuine interest and drive in pursuing a future in medicine.
Not too long ago, another Young Feminist contributor discussed the idea that making motherhood a part of one’s future plans is not an anti-feminist act. I agree wholeheartedly with her opinion, but I feel strongly that such plans should be made on a personal basis, and not to address strangers’ judgments. If I want to make children a part of my future, I will decide when and how that will work for me. For people to immediately assume that I will be a mother someday reduces me to an antiquated view of women existing solely to reproduce.
And, if I do decide to have children, it does not automatically mean that I will be the primary caregiver. Just as many men have kids as women, and the continued assumption that the mother will be the primary caregiver is outdated and imposes unnecessary restrictions on a woman’s ability to determine her own future. Additionally, plenty of children are not raised in a “traditional” two-parent, mother-father parenting model; this hetero-normative stereotype about the family is exclusionary and inapplicable for many people today.
We all have habits and invisible prejudices within us, including those we apply to ourselves and our own futures. Rather than be ashamed of them and pretend they don’t exist, I think we should recognize them within ourselves and then work to challenge them everyday. Words matter. Reactions matter. In a time when women are still underrepresented and undervalued in the workforce, it is important to support women’s choices wherever we can. This is what I’ve done with my plans for a medical career. I am now firm in my desire and drive to become a physician and I will no longer waver when people respond to my plans with doubt.
Anna Gomez recently graduated from Kenyon College with a degree in Spanish and Arabic. She hopes to apply to medical school in the next few years and to specialize in Obstetrics and Gynecology. Anna was an intern at the NWHN in the Fall of 2016 and had the exciting opportunity to explore health care’s non-profit side, and take part in the fight for women’s health!
Article originally published in the March/April 2017 Women’s Health Activist Newsletter
1. Tsugawa Y, Jena AB, Figueroa JF, “Comparison of Hospital Mortality and Readmission Rates for Medicare Patients Treated by Male vs Female Physicians,” JAMA Intern Med. Published online December 19, 2016. Available online at: doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.7875.