When Malika Favre designed the April 3, 2017 cover of the New Yorker, she didn’t expect the image to resonate with so many people. The cover, which depicts the faces of four women in doctors’ scrubs leaning over a table, was intended to illustrate the concepts of “Health, Medicine & the Body.” But when Susan Pitt, an endocrine surgeon who works at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, saw the issue, she was inspired to grab three of her fellow female surgeons to recreate the photo. The trend caught on fast, and soon other women surgeons were replicating the image all over the world and sharing on social media.
Many of the images were accompanied by the hashtag, #ILookLikeASurgeon. This hashtag actually started back in August 2015, springboarding off of the momentum of the #ILookLikeAnEngineer hashtag that preceded it. These hashtags sought to challenge the image of these professions by sharing the diverse faces that make them up. STEM fields often struggle to attract, and then to retain women. Because these fields are still largely male-dominated, they are often unwelcoming to women, hence the trouble with retention.
Women in the medical field face a wide range of barriers that spring out of sexism. Some of these hurdles are more subtle than others. This study found that at speaking events, men were introduced as “doctor,” while women were referred to in that way less than half of the time. This pattern is more than just semantics; it reflects the assumptions people make about a woman’s competence and qualifications. These assumptions are born of the unconscious biases we all harbor. Often, people make these assumptions without even realizing it. But the fact that it is (often) unconscious and unintentional doesn’t make the result any less damaging. As any woman doctor can attest, they are often assumed to be nurses or not trusted to deliver medical advice.
The response to the New Yorker cover was intended to normalize the image of women in surgery, inspire women considering the field, and to address issues of pay inequality. Many studies have found the gender wage gap to be persistent across the medical field. In the United States, on average, women in medicine make an average of 26.5% less than their male counterparts. Some might say that this result is probably because women choose lower paying specialties, right? Not so. The gap varies but stays significant within any specialty. All of these studies are followed up with musings as to how this could possibly be. All of the theories are things that any woman seeking success in any business has heard before. “This is a real problem” and “how is this still happening” and the inevitable “women just don’t know how to negotiate.” And statistically, yes, women are less likely to self-advocate (though this seems to be improving), but studies also show consistently that women who do negotiate on their own behalf are perceived negatively and often punished for it. A man who negotiates aggressively is perceived as strong and confident, but when a woman does it, she is more likely to be seen as pushy, entitled, and ultimately, undeserving. It's the same old story.
So if the pay gap (and the other forms of discrimination facing women in surgery) really come down to unconscious bias, how do we fight that? The answer seems to be movements like #ILookLikeASurgeon. If we can normalize the idea of women in surgery, in the medical field, in male-dominated professions, perhaps we can slowly wear down these biases and misconceptions. It’s a frustrating answer. Who knows how long it will take. And until then, we are left dealing with the same issues—issues that drive many women out of these male-dominated fields.
Sharing our stories, promoting other women, negotiating in just the right way... this is all work that we shouldn’t have to do. But it’s work worth doing. As women climb the ladders in these male-dominated fields and establish themselves as a part of the environment, that environment becomes more welcoming to other young women entering the industry. #ILookLikeASurgeon is a message from women to women: “We’re here; I see you; we’re in this together.” The Association of Women Surgeons is another great resource for women in the field and has been an active promoter of the #ILookLikeASurgeon movement. Check out the hashtag for some striking photos from women in surgery all over the world and get inspired!
Banner photo can be found at the New Yorker, here