“Girl doctors need sparkles,” I told the blonde 5-year-old in pigtails as she grabbed the rhinestones on my stethoscope. Rhinestones on our stethoscopes? Yes, it's good to be a girl doctor. Not to mention vibrantly colored manicures, pretty, flowered Danskos, glittery hair ties, and never-ending hairstyle options. And don't forget the lip gloss. Twizzler-flavored, no less. Yes, little pigtailed princess enchanted by my stethoscope bling, you can run an ED or do whatever else your heart desires and still be girly. Grow up to be whatever Barbie career doll you want.
Let me preface this by saying I have no delusions that I'm anywhere near a real-life Barbie, but as far as Yale-educated ED night docs go, I'm probably on the cuter end of the spectrum. Really, it doesn't matter. Regardless of color, shape, size, or where we are on the cuteness scale, all of us fabulous women in medicine have a little Dr. Barbie in us that we should embrace.
I'm not naively unaware of female physicians' struggles with gender stereotypes. I know them all too well. “Yes, I'm really the doctor” will probably end up on my tombstone. Either that, or, “Bitch,” society's favorite word for describing strong, assertive women. But what if we turn the tables? We all have to use whatever unique traits we have to get the job done and get our patients taken care of, so what's wrong with embracing our femininity and finding a way to let the deep-rooted immutable cultural expectations help and not hinder us? Here's a plot twist to consider: We can use subconscious gender biases to our advantage. We should proudly own the stereotypical feminine characteristics that make female doctors different from, and in my slightly biased opinion, better than male docs.
Why are women in medicine so fabulous? It's been proven that they spend up to 10 percent more time with patients, tend to be more encouraging and reassuring, and ask more psychosocial questions. Women are perceived to be better listeners, so patients may be more willing to open up. Women are able to be empathetic about different things from men. When it comes to pregnancy-related and gynecologic visits, I've been there. I can tell patients I've had a miscarriage, too. I can commiserate about the discomforts of pregnancy. I can tell all anxious moms that I, too, have been there. Women also have better fine motor skills and patience for tedious tasks, and they have been learning to sew for generations. Believe me, you want me suturing your laceration. I sew like a girl. And our fingers are smaller, which is so useful for a variety of other procedures in medicine, as I recently told a patient right before I disimpacted him. Indeed, being Dr. Barbie has its perks.
Our gender completely shapes how we practice medicine, so I've learned to use my feminine assets to help me with the interpersonal challenges I face in the ED. By no means am I less strong-willed and commanding than my male counterparts when I need to be. If you screw with me, I'm about as sweet as a piranha, but nobody has to know that. I will let them hang onto that initial first impression of stereotypical sweetness, and I will play that sweet card to help me get my job done. My womanly wiles are a weapon in my EP arsenal.
No, I can't flirt with the female nurses to win them over like male docs can, but at the very least, I can win caffeine, as integral to a night doc as her stethoscope, by wooing EMS or police to get coffee. “Don't ask me how many red lights I blew through to get that coffee to you hot and unspilled,” said an officer one night as he handed me a huge cup of delicious joe. Free coffee may seem frivolous, but these same feminine charms that work for free coffee have helped me save lives. I have shamelessly flirted with cantankerous yet very sick male patients to convince them to comply with admission or undergo potentially lifesaving treatments after reasoning failed. “My BP's up, but in fairness you should subtract 40 since you were at my bedside when they took it,” and “I don't have high blood pressure; I have high blonde pressure” have been some of my favorite one-liners from little old men. If harmless flirting establishes a rapport that facilitates saving a life, I'm not above it.
Likewise, when it comes to the cooperation of male hospitalists and consultants, I will take full advantage of the fact that men are chivalrous if it helps my patient. Never underestimate the power of the damsel in distress bit in compelling a male colleague to consult or admit. “I tried to admit to the specialist, but he was rude,” I purred to the hospitalist one night. He said he would handle it, and 30 minutes later came triumphantly strutting into the ED, reported he told off the physician who was rude, and admitted my patient. Beats getting into the middle of a turf war. As our beloved little 70-year-old cardiologist put it when I thanked him for coming to see my patient at 3:30 a.m., “When a woman calls me, I come.”
Am I allowing sexism by capitalizing on subconscious gender biases and making them work for me? Perhaps. Or perhaps I am exploiting sexism. Either way, I'm getting my job done. I'm secure enough in my own intelligence and credentials that if a man wants to focus on my looks or shower me with chivalry, kudos to me. Thanks for the compliment. It doesn't offend me or demean my ability. In fact, it's empowering. Beauty is power. Attractive people succeed. As a female physician, I have the best of both worlds. I can embrace gender stereotypes when they work for me, and then I get to say “shove off” to stereotypes when ED circumstances call for assertiveness, dominance, and leadership, which are usually more socially acceptable for men. You can be fabulously feminine and a fierce physician. Wear your sparkles and your lip gloss, and proudly embrace your inner Dr. Barbie.
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