Sexism and Apologies 2020

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“If you say, ‘Yeah, there was sexism in this race,’ everyone says, ‘Whiner!’ If you say, ‘No, there was no sexism,’ about a bazillion women think, ‘What planet do you live on?’”

That is how Senator Elizabeth Warren answered a reporter when asked whether she thought gender played a role in her suspending her presidential campaign.  I recommend watching the whole video clip.  In case anyone wonders: if the question even needs to be asked, then yes, gender played a role.  But Senator Warren rightly called out the question for what it is: a trap for any woman running for high elected office.  Her statement summarizes it succinctly; she knows what’s what, and she names it without apology.

I was more upset than I expected when Aunt Eliz Crusader ended her campaign.   Megan Garber expressed the story of my profound disappointment eloquently in her piece for The Atlantic:  “America Punished Elizabeth Warren for her Competence”.  Basically she elaborates the apparently inevitable social equation for women:

Competent  +  Vocal  +  Unapologetic   =   “Strident”  +  “Shrill” +  “Condescending”

The past two weeks I have had a series of encounters wherein I find myself voicing opinions and positions more firmly than I might have in the past.  I feel confident and grounded in my knowledge and expertise.  I am professional and respectful.  I apologized for writing a long email, even though the words were necessary and clear.  My strong woman mentor reminded me to save apologies for when I actually commit a transgression.

What I have learned (perhaps again) in this time, however, is that relationship discord, even just the possibility of it, is what distresses me the most.  How will I be perceived for voicing my concerns, for advocating for my peers and teams?  How will a negative perception undermine my effectiveness?  Will it cost me my seat at this table or others?

Does any man ask himself these questions?

Given that I was already knee deep in vulnerability and self-doubt around these encounters, the Atlantic piece poked my fears and prodded them to the surface.  It shook me.  It also made me angry that here we still are, in 2020, unable to accept, let alone embrace, competent, vocal, and unapologetic women in leadership.  And it’s not just men; countless women also disavow their sisters.

I vented my disappointment on Facebook (of course):

“So it is down to three Old White Men.  Very disappointing.”

A friend tried to make light of the situation, pointing out that Donald Trump is the youngest of the three.  This attempt at levity (from the Right) felt like a nemesis rubbing salt in my fresh wound.  Twice I rebuffed; twice he persisted.  Finally I (voiced):  “I feel ignored and dismissed when I express distress and you make light of it.  Perhaps my distress is not clear to you, because you only know me through social media [we were friendly acquaintances in high school]; you may not know how upset I am.  But after two replies by me rejecting your attempt at humor, to have you schooling me [that humor is a ‘primary’ way] of dealing with [politics] just makes me more angry.”

Turns out he had mistyped; he’d meant to write that humor is one of his primary ways of coping with the absurdity of politics.  He apologized to me.  It felt sincere.  I was consoled, and I thanked him.

Competent and vocal.  Confident and unapologetic.  Respectful and humble.

We need all of these qualities and more to be true leaders.  Women, arguably, must work harder than our male counterparts to prove that we possess all of them.  Then we get punished when the proof proves irrefutable.  How sadly ironic.  The truth is we need many more of our leaders, men and women alike, to own, exude, and model these virtues.  The last two are not weak, though they may feel profoundly vulnerable, which is not the same thing.

I feel urgent impatience at the state of sexism in America.  But I know how to soothe and manage myself; I can reclaim the patient urgency of fierce optimism at my core.

I will persist.

Aunt Eliz has shown me how.

November 22:  Listening to People’s Stories Makes Me Better

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NaBloPoMo 2019

What a long, strange week.  I almost forgot to write a post, just wanted to relax and do nothing.

Looking back, overall it was good. And it was people who held me up, as always.  I had some pretty moving and meaningful conversations with patients, and I really helped some people, I think.  But it was a new acquaintance who really made my day today.

I finally had time to bring my car to the body shop this afternoon.  After an unfortunate encounter with a fire hydrant while backing out of a very poorly planned driveway, my front bumper has been partially detached for about 7 weeks.  Every single person at this shop was remarkably nice—from the lady on the phone, to the young man who so politely offered to move my car when I parked it in totally the wrong place.  The waiting area was clean, neat, and well lit, with comfy, non-holey chairs.  After a short wait, a petite and pleasant woman, maybe 40, introduced herself.  She would provide the estimate on my repairs.  We headed outside.  She pointed to the ledge at the doorway on which I had tripped walking in, so I would not do it again.

After I brought her to the car she said I could go back inside and wait, but I asked to hang out with her, because I like to see what other people do.  I know less than nothing about cars, and I loved that here was a youngish, friendly woman who clearly knew her way around them.  I admired her right away.  She was thorough and conscientious, looking inside and out.  She was also extremely knowledgeable and patient, showing me everything, talking me through the parts and functions, and answering my ignorant questions, down to how the VIN includes the paint mix of the make, model and year.  She stayed with me through the whole process, including walking me out to show me the key drop box, because they can’t fix my car for another two weeks.

Before we said goodbye I could not help myself.  I told her how happy it makes me to see a woman doing a job that I have only seen men do.  She seemed genuinely proud and thankful for the compliment, and I’m glad I said something.  I didn’t mean to make her stand outside in the cold any longer, but she started reflecting and telling me her story.  Turns out this was her first day on her own at this job—I thought she had done it for years already.  Nope.  She had done inventory for a railroad company, and programmed machines that cut industrial dies.  She had worked in shops and factories of various kinds, it sounded like, always surrounded by and holding her own among men.

I asked her if it feels different (and hopefully better?) being a woman in these male-dominated fields now, after all these years.  She thought for a moment (looking completely comfortable, while I had started shivering already).  It almost seemed like she had never considered the question before?  She concluded that her peers and coworkers have never been the problem.  It’s the customers.

She kept talking, as if the subsequent story had been waiting days for a sympathetic ear.  In her last days of training, a man brought in a car with severe rear body damage, clearly from a collision.  He gave her a history, she made her appraisal, and he was suspicious and dismissive toward her the whole time.  To assuage him, she brought her trainer to review the case, whose assessment and recommendations were the same as hers.  This time the customer told a different story—admitted to lying to her, basically—and accepted the trainer’s evaluation.  No apology, no remorse, no respect.  She was still affected by it today, and upset with herself that she had let him get under her skin.  Whatever, she said in the end, she’s here to do a job, and there will always be people who underestimate her because of her sex.  Thankfully her trainer was an ally, which made me proud of the good men in our midst.

This woman’s life experience, though clearly different from mine, felt relatable and real to me.  In those few minutes, in the waning daylight of a brisk fall evening in Chicago, surrounded by broken cars, I felt solidarity with and pride for her.  It made me better for reminding me once again of our shared humanity:  Hers, mine, my patients’, those crazy drivers on Wednesday, even her lying customer.

We’re all here doing our best with what we’ got.  I firmly believe this, but sometimes I forget.  Hearing folks’ stories always brings me back.  So I’m thankful for them.

 

November 7:  Feedback Makes Me Better

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NaBloPoMo 2019

This post is about power.

Two friends provided important feedback on last night’s post, and I am, gratefully, much better for it.

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“You are a woman of color?”

My college friend commented on Facebook.  “Are you being serious?”  I asked him.  Yes, he replied.  He went on to point out that he sees the term being used more broadly, and that he thinks it’s been co-opted.  He made me think, which always makes me better.

In the original post, I described myself as a “petite, young, woman of color doctor,” standing up to an older white man. My friend wrote, “I think disadvantage is baked into the term, why else use it?”  Looking back, I admit I was exaggerating.  I had power on my mind, and I was trying to think of all the ways I should not have power in the situation, and yet I absolutely did, and I recognized it.  But labeling myself a person of color, I realize now, was at least somewhat inappropriate.  I have changed the text to “petite, young, Chinese woman doctor.”  I sincerely apologize if I insulted or offended anyone.

In medicine, East Asians are not considered a disadvantaged minority in the conventional sense (although while we are over-represented compared to the general population, we hold proportionally few leadership roles).  In general, however, I would argue that any non-white person in the US may still experience myriad disadvantages, in any field or situation, even if subtle.  At any point in an encounter, even with ‘MD’ and years of training and expertise behind my name, a white man can always hurl some racist, sexist remark to make me feel small.  He could just as easily attack a fellow white man on the basis of weight, sexual orientation, stature, or some other peculiar distinction, but somehow it feels like my white male colleagues just don’t have to think about this possibility as much as I do.  I feel self-conscious about my gender and race every day at work.  That is why this past spring, when I attended a negotiation skills presentation at the American College of Physicians (ACP) national meeting, I felt particularly gratified that the presenters were two East Asian women and one white man.

* * * * *

“You may want to include physicians as victims in your blog.”

A colleague responded to my post by sharing her story of being verbally attacked by a patient.  She was alone, no witnesses, and he treated staff politely, unlike in my story.  She was ‘dumbstruck and said nothing.’  She wrote, “I think as physicians, we are targets for verbal abuse because we have a privileged profession and would look foolish or weak in defending ourselves.”  In other words, since doctors hold such high societal status (power), people think we should just accept being taken down a notch or two?  That if we express an expectation of respect we are lording our status over others and thus even more justifiably open to insult and ridicule?  I see now how this can make a physician feel like a victim of societal stereotypes and expectations.

That said, I think it doesn’t matter what we do for a living; every person has an absolute right to expect respect from anyone else.  Years ago, another older white male patient made a series of passive aggressive remarks in the space of several minutes at the end of a visit.  I felt they were unfair and uncalled for, as I had spent the entire visit doing my best to connect with and care for him.  After a moment of consideration, knowing it was a risk, I was respectfully direct with him.  I repeated his words and told him that they felt like digs.  He admitted that they were and apologized, and congratulated my courage to call him out.  He never came back to see me.  I feel good about how I handled it; was it a power struggle?  I would have been open to cultivating a mutually respectful and honest relationship, had he returned.

Feedback definitely makes me better.  I will never grow if I only attend to my own point of view.  I don’t have to abandon my own perspective when facing an opposing one, and I am not obligated to incorporate anyone else’s point of view.  But if I expect anyone to take my writing and message seriously, I am required to listen to and try to understand any feedback that is offered in good faith.

Thank you, my friends, for keeping me honest and grounded.