Can women be professionals? Advice from a woman in a “man’s” world.

Merriam Webster defines professionalism as “the skill, good judgment, and polite behavior that is expected from a person who is trained to do a job well”.

In the past 3 weeks, a few things have happened that have brought this topic to mind.  To give you a couple of examples:

While watching the celebrity apprentice, my au pair made the comment that it wasn’t fair for the teams to be split by gender – that the women were at a disadvantage.  I expressed some surprise by this sentiment (being a product of an all-girls’ high school and all), and asked her why.  She replied, “Because women don’t work together well.”

Two weeks ago, one of the ER nurses asked me if I had been a nurse before I became a doctor.  One of the best indirect compliments I have ever received.  This is a “big deal” so to speak because growing up, (and by growing up I mean in medical school and residency) as physicians you are taught certain life “truths”, which vary by specialty and by gender.  One of these “truths” is that nurses and female doctors do NOT work well together.  It is whispered about and discussed as fact, passed down from generations of residents before you – nurses will give you a harder time, they are nicer to the male doctors, don’t let your nurses call you by your first name because then they won’t respect you, etc, etc.

Another friend who has been very successful at her job and has all the evaluations to prove it is leaving this job.  Partly because her evaluations are filled with not just job performance reports but also reports about her personality.  Personality?  Really?!  I don’t mean unprofessional behavior – cursing, being verbally abusive, etc, I mean personality.  Like, your personality is “too assertive”, etc.

So this really got me thinking – can women really NOT work together?  Are we NOT able to give or receive constructive criticism and feedback professionally?  Are we subject to interpretations of our job performance based upon how well-liked we are instead of how efficient, productive, and skilled we are?

Every Friday morning, I attend “M&M”, aka morbidity and mortality conference.  This conference is well-known to surgeons everywhere.  In this conference, complications are presented in a PowerPoint format, with at least a 34 sized font, and flashed up on a huge screen in front of all the surgeons in our department to dissect, comment upon, and quite frankly, judge.

So for those of you not in medicine, let me try and describe it to you in a way to makes this process hit home.  Think of your last mistake at work – maybe you missed or forgot a deadline, flubbed a presentation, didn’t make the best impression on a client.  Any mistake you can think of –  large or small.  Okay, got one in mind?  Now, think of a detailed report on that mistake… a timeline describing all of your missteps or mistaken thoughts… when these occurred, whether they were witnessed or not, your boss’ account of what happened, your secretary’s impressions of what happened, the outcome of the mistake, and a poll of similar people in your position around the country and whether or not they have made that same mistake also.  Your worst and most embarrassing moments, picked at, highlighted, judged, written down, projected on a screen, and worst of all – viewed by everyone in your office, company, etc.  Have chest pain yet?

Well, this is what your surgeons do every single week.  Luckily, most of us don’t have our own complications presented every week, but it happens to all of us.  And, we all have to learn to be “professional” about it.  In other words, we have to be sensitive enough to our mistakes to not make them again, but not so sensitive that we can’t move on emotionally and be productive.  In other words, not take things too personally.  We have to understand that these mistakes we make are actions, not personality traits.  I am not a “bad” person because I made a wrong decision.  One of my favorite surgeons from residency always said, “The last thing a patient needs is a surgeon who feels sorry from himself.”

Okay, okay, so what the hell does this have to do with women as professionals?

I can clearly delineate and separate professional actions and personal happiness, because I have been trained to do so.  Quite frankly, given my years spent attending and participating in M&M conferences, this “skill” is critical to emotional survival and professional success.  I have to keep the emotions at bay so I can accept the criticism in order to make myself better.  I am not perfect.  All I can hope is that I will be better tomorrow than I am today, and sometimes I need help with that.  And sometimes that help is in the form of criticism.  However, most women don’t have to sit through an M&M conference every week, and I feel struggle with this ability to separate the professional from the personal.

Let me be blunt, Women will never achieve the same levels of professional success as men, until we act professionally TO EACH OTHER, and think and judge OURSELVES as professionals.

So, do I have this all figured out?  Hell, no.  But here are some thoughts and advice on what has helped me.

All female relationships can be tricky… if we let them be.

As a species, most of us are plagued to some degree by insecurity.  We are taught at a young age to be people pleasers, and ergo a lot of us judge ourselves by how well we please other people.  In addition, we unwittingly often compare ourselves to other women, regardless of the differences in our situations.  For example, I found myself one morning, sitting in the pediatrician’s waiting room, comparing myself to another mom with a similarly aged child.  I had just finished working over 24 hours, and looked every inch of it.  She was enviably thin; her hair, her makeup and her clothes were well appointed and fashionable.  Her toddler belonged in a GAP ad.  I looked slightly homeless with my child still in his pajamas and covered in maple syrup from the pancakes I had bribed him with on our way to the appointment.  I caught myself judging how I am as a mother and as a woman based on the appearance of a complete stranger in a damn waiting room.  I have two degrees, am a double boarded surgeon and found myself in a thought process that was a complete waste of 5 minutes of my life that I will never get back.  I don’t know this woman, so why the hell was I envying her?  Because, regardless of education, our successes and accomplishments, that is what many of us do.  We judge our worth, our success at life, by how we compare to other women.  And this, is absolutely absurd.

When two dogs meet, there are cautious glances exchanged, followed by some evaluation at a distance, then some butt-sniffing, and ending with a silent acceptance of the other animal’s existence, or some baring of teeth, or some tail wagging.  We, as women, are similar – well, without the butt-sniffing (in most cases).  When we meet another woman, often times our insecurities dictate our behavior and our opinion of her… however unfounded those opinions might be.

Now place all these behaviors and thoughts in the professional world, and let’s complicate matters by adding a real, or implied hierarchy.

Overall, this milieu can lead to a level of discomfort amongst women who are all on the same team, but with different roles and qualifications.  However, I am here to tell you that this discomfort can be overcome.  I am blessed to have worked with an amazing group of nurses throughout my career, and even though we aren’t “supposed” to work well together, we do.  In fact, I count many of them as very close friends.

My advice for success in the professional world as a woman, whether you work in a predominantly female world or male world is:

Have the confidence to separate the actions from the person.

In other words, learn how to give and receive negative criticism professionally.  Whether you are the one that “messed up”, or you are the person giving feedback to a colleague, separate the personal from the professional.  She or he isn’t “mean” because they gave you constructive criticism or had to address an issue with you.  If you have an argument or disagreement with a colleague about a project, is she or he really being “difficult” or are you just two people with two different opinions and perspectives?  You don’t need to and ask your boss if he or she is “mad” at you because you failed to meet a deadline or ask your colleague if she doesn’t “like” you because you had a disagreement.  Keep it about the job!  Ask instead how you can improve, what could you have done better.

Keep the emotions in check… in public, at least.

We have all had those days – when nothing is going right, you made a mistake, disappointed yourself or your boss with your performance, you have had a disagreement with your colleague, etc.  It is completely normal to have emotions, even strong emotions about things that happen at work.  I’m not saying you can’t have those feelings, I’m just asking that you to please not consider the public water cooler as the place to express your unfiltered, raw emotions.  Nothing wrong with crying, ladies.  There just isn’t any crying in baseball.  Hold it together until you are in your office, locker room, bathroom, etc.  It is hard to be taken seriously in a career if you are viewed as fragile, or a bundle of nerves and emotions.

Finally, for the love, let’s learn to Respect, Respect, Respect each other.

Let’s stop calling each other bitches.

Let’s start accepting and embracing our differences.

Let’s stop viewing our mistakes as personal faults.

Let’s start giving and taking negative criticism with CONFIDENCE.

Let’s stop judging ourselves based upon our impressions of other women – This leads to feelings of insecurity, which often leads to actions based on insecurity.

Let’s start having the CONFIDENCE to embrace and support each other, and let’s start proving everyone WRONG.  Functioning as either boss or employee, women CAN work together well, succeed, and LEAD.

I mean, we are the superior gender, right?  😉

10 thoughts on “Can women be professionals? Advice from a woman in a “man’s” world.

  1. Love, love, love! Speaks to exactly what I am going through right now! I Co side myself assertive and structured and apparently that has not meshed well wit some of my female colleagues. What a shame. I never mind constructive feedback in fact I welcome it, but others have not felt the same way. Sigh women are too much drama lol! It’s the reason I like to hire male nurses lol

  2. The same is true of the interactions between female physicians and female patients.
    Assertiveness and efficiency in a female MD is viewed differently than those same qualities in a male physician. We are supposed to be more emphathetic, less judgemental and not as focused on surgical skills. I can’t tell you how many times I have completely explained a surgical procedure to a patient in detail, scheduled the surgery and have the patient ask when they will meet the physician doing the surgery!

  3. I agree with so much of what you wrote as well. Its hard to be a woman in surgery and I have certainly been on the receiving end of criticisms of my personality and not my actual work. I have had to defend female residents that don’t “get along” with nurses or get written up by nurses for being assertive. I try to teach that we (as women) need to be kind to everyone and truly cant act like the guys do. People somehow expect more from us….
    Either way, I have decided to be myself – kind and respectful, but we cant back down either.

  4. I absolutely love this post! It is absolutely relevant in my world. I’m reporting to a female supervisor at my workplace and the basis of my decision to accept this job was to expose myself to a female executive who I could learn from and potentially take on as a mentor. These unicorn visions of mine have fallen rather traumatically and I’m complete grossed out by her behavior in a corporate environment. And to make matter worse, she’s not even good at her job which makes me lose respect for her as a boss and a fellow woman on so many levels. This article really hit home for me so thank you for posting.

  5. Women physicians are hungry for and appreciative of the perspective and recommendation of their peers on how to thrive in medicine as women. For 3 years I have facilitated monthly Women Physician Circles in my state of Oregon. Busy physicians show up because feeling isolated is rampant and building community with peers supports their well-being. What is so impressive to me is how excited women physicians can be to support one another. I agree- change starts with helping and supporting one another first!

  6. As an operating room nurse for over 30 years I commend you on this very well written article. I’ve seen every side of the spectrum and try extremely hard in my role to provide feedback in such a way as to help with a positive outcome. I speak to male or female Ortho residents in the same fashion and have no difference in the standards they must abide by in the operating room. I push myself to be professional and give 110% — my bad days are inside my head and not on my face.
    Keep your chin up and remember that all those male surgeons face M & M rounds just like you.

  7. Very interesting article-it helps me, a female surgeon, to see I’m not the only one, etc etc. The problem? Getting your would-be supporters (your female secretary/admin assist/MAs/nurses) to stick to the principles outlined. Not happening in my world, sadly. I like to lead by example, not bad mouthing colleagues, other professionals…it’s gotten me a whole lotta nothing. But, hey, nice article.

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