The hit primetime drama Grey’s Anatomy follows surgical legacy Meredith Grey as she does it all: remains constantly on the edge of breakthrough surgeries, has a successful career as the head of general surgery, and raises three kids whilst dealing with her fellow surgeons, who are so dramatic that they might as well be children themselves. Has it been mentioned she does all this as a single mom who’s lost the love of her life?
In reality, it’s almost impossible to be Meredith Grey. Mental health issues, work-family conflict, and constant gender bias make it continuously harder for women in the medical profession to earn their reputation in the field. A part of the reason this occurs is the rigidity the medical system has had in its training; over the last 50 years, the number of women in the midst of their medical training has shot up from 7 percent to over 25 percent, but the training has remained exactly as grueling as it was when the majority of students completing their medical training were men. Men have always had less of a domestic burden than women, being allowed to escape household chores and taking care of children.
Women can do all of these things while completing the medical training program originally designed for men, but it is causing them some serious mental harm. According to a study done by Dr. Constance Guille, in which 3,100 new doctors were analyzed after six months, it was found that both genders experienced a sharp uptick in depression. The number was most noticeable in women, with a main cause being work-family conflict. Female physicians with children spend nine more hours in a week than their male counterparts on domestic activities and are more likely to take time off to spend with their children if they are sick or if school is closed.
The statistics aren’t helping the gender disparities that are already in place – female physicians are still experiencing both subtle and obvious forms of discrimination against them. For example, even though the woman in the room may be the most experienced, the patient will always look toward the man in the room if there is one. “I wear a white coat; I introduce myself as doctor,” said Dr. Theresa Williamison, who is a neurosurgery resident at Duke University. “But patients still assume I’m a nurse or medical assistant or pharmacist.”
“If there’s a man in the room — even if he’s a medical student and I’m the doctor — he’s the one they make eye contact with, tell their story to, ask questions of.” The assumption of authority even carries itself into the world of medical discoveries. When presenting to male doctors, women would always refer to them by their proper titles; when male doctors were to present, they would call other males by their proper titles, but instead thank female doctors by only their first names.
“I remember being on a panel with all men, and the moderator thanking Dr. X, Y, Z — and Julia,” says Dr. Julia Files, who is an associate professor at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona. “It happens all the time.”
Images of equality aren’t helped by those of primetime television – it needs to be remembered that what is represented on television isn’t necessarily what is occurring in reality. The gender gap between the treatment of male and female doctors is still quite large, from the pay gap to the way that they are treated in scientific research. Undoubtedly, there are many Meredith Greys of the world, but there are still women doctors being overlooked and undermined – and they deserve to be treated as equally.
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