Last week it happened again. It starts with a hesitant smile, a subtle pause, eyes looking me up and down, and a gaze that tentatively rests at my stomach. I sense what is about to occur, and I wait like the proverbial deer in the headlights. Then comes the timid question: “Are you expecting?”
I pause awkwardly and briefly contemplate my response. Because my patient is inquiring out of love and genuine curiosity, I tamp down my sarcasm and mumble, “It’s my pants style.” The patient lowers their eyes and murmurs something apologetic.
She smoked. There was always a pack of Lark cigarettes on the kitchen table next to a half-empty cup of lukewarm coffee. I couldn’t stand the smell of coffee for years because it was comingled in my nostrils with curling cigarette fumes. I had to beg her not to smoke in the car, where the combination of motion and tobacco smoke nauseated me until I had to yell to my father to stop the car, just in time to open the door and throw up on the side of the road.
The new attending pulled us aside after morning rounds. I would be the intern on his team, along with a senior resident and some medical students. I pulled out a notebook from the bulging pockets of my white coat, ready to jot down notes about his patients or write words of wisdom. “I expect the ladies on my team to wear dresses or skirts with high heels, hair styled, and make-up done. Men should wear shirts and ties.” I was too stunned to speak. I looked around hoping to find another shocked expression; however, the team was conveniently mostly male.
Working for an agency that was dominated by men made me all the more aware that I had to prove my worth.
One of my monthly duties was to rate my job performance, in a number of areas, on a scale of 1 to 5. I would then submit a monthly report to my director and review it with him. I always made it a point to deliver it on time and to make an appointment for my interview.
I worked as a PhD clinical psychologist for many years and was respected for my knowledge and hard work. There were exceptions, of course: mainly from the male psychiatrists I crossed paths with. This should have prepared me for my experiences as a patient, when I saw male doctors for health issues. Not so.
It’s a common conversation: A female patient presents to her male doctor with unexplained weight gain. “I’m not overeating,” she says. “I try to exercise, but it’s getting harder and harder to do that.”
The physician is dubious. “You just need to be more active,” he responds. “You need to stop eating so much,” he adds. “Here’s a diet plan. You just need to stick to it.”
I didn’t need May’s “More Voices” theme as a prompt to reflect on the role sexism has played in my life: Two recent experiences had already done so. I just saw a touring-company production of To Kill a Mockingbird. At one point, Jem rebukes his younger sister, Scout, for showing emotion—accusing her of “becoming more like a girl every day.” Shortly after, my great-niece, a stellar high school sophomore, shared an essay she’d written on gender stereotypes in The Odyssey—using quotes to show how Homer criticized women for displaying too much emotion and embarrassed men for displaying any emotion at all.
Dear Pulse readers,
My wife and I have raised two daughters. When our girls were little, and I was casting about for stories and characters to inspire them, it struck me with visceral force how the vast majority of cartoon and fantasy characters were male–from Micky Mouse and Bugs Bunny to Kermit the Frog and Winnie the Pooh. From Donald Duck, Daffy Duck and Yogi Bear to Rocky and Bullwinkle. Bert and Ernie. Felix the Cat. Superman.
Completing my internal medicine training in the summer of 1962, I packed my car and, together with my wife and three young children, set out to find a place to practice internal medicine in a town with a good public school system.
While looking for a home from which to practice, I scrounged around for some work–police calls, house calls, calls from the ER–while my family lived on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.